Craig Venter’s ‘Digital-to-Biological Converter’ Is Real

Jun 20, 2017

By Jordan Pearson

Craig Venter thinks that sending living organisms to other galaxies on spaceships is “definitely” science fiction. It’s much more realistic, he thinks, to print them on-site using digital representations of their genome. He calls this “biological teleportation.”

Essentially emailing medicine and organisms back and forth between Earth and other planets is just one of the far-future implications of a device developed by Synthetic Genomics, a company founded by Venter, a superstar geneticist and biotechnologist. The tabletop device is called the Digital-to-Biological Converter, or DBC for short, and without a fancy box it looks like a bunch of complicated mechanical crap laid out on a table. The device accepts digital representations of DNA over the internet and reconstructs them on the spot using the chemical building blocks of life—adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. You might recognize their initials from the movie Gattaca.

“Just like a printer, it needs cassettes, but instead of colours, it’s bottles of chemicals,” Venter said over the phone. “It’s packaging complex biology that each of our tiny cells do remarkably well at a much, much smaller scale.”

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9 comments on “Craig Venter’s ‘Digital-to-Biological Converter’ Is Real

  • @OP – Craig Venter thinks that sending living organisms to other galaxies on spaceships is “definitely” science fiction. It’s much more realistic, he thinks, to print them on-site using digital representations of their genome. He calls this “biological teleportation.”

    While this may be possible at some far future time, there are some obvious questions:-

    Why would it be easier to send a complex 3D printer to an alien planet, rather than some incubator package with spores or seeds?

    Given Earth’s biosphere history and bio-conversion to an oxygen atmosphere, it is very unlikely that some alien planet has Earth-like conditions without pre-existing life!

    It is also very unlikely that one which has life, would have life which is compatible with Earth-life.

    There would therefore, need to be some enclosed bases or terraforming conducted long before Earth-life could be accommodated.

    3D printers could certainly be useful in the robot construction of bases, but as genetic packages, spores, seeds, and eggs, are much more compact and less massive than printing equipment.



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  • 2
    rocket888 says:

    This technology excites me just as the first VLSI systems (also called: compiling to silicon) did some 40 years ago. There was once a distinct line between hardware and software but today, hardware chips are designed on workstations just like software systems. It’s not even possible to build a modern chip with a breadboard style technology.

    Now and in the future, biotech will simply be another branch of information technology. Just as how OO – object oriented design is much more modular and thus reusable, there will soon exist class libraries of dna and rna. A biotech designer will use visual tools, similar to visual basic, to design life-forms. There will be simulators and debuggers, just as in software development today.

    Perhaps these tools already exists today in Venter’s labs.

    By sending printers instead of spores, one can send “life at the speed of light” as Venter writes in his book with this subtitle. The advantage is clear. Just as all software requires updates and many versions before it gets it right, so too, revisions will be developed here on Earth (using our 7 billion organic parallel processors) and then sent into space.

    It takes a Silicon Valley and then some to create new chips. And so any RAMA like spaceship (as in A.C. Clarke’s tale) would be frozen in time, and probably only be able to create spare parts with 3d printers. But that’s for old technology, there won’t a new iphone (or bacteria) on alpha centuri unless we send 3d printers first and develop the technology here where we have the resources. We could even send new designs for updated 3d printers so our spacecraft can keep up to date. Hardware/software/bioware will all merge into one.

    If we send a spore, and it doesn’t work though some oversight, only we on the earth will have enough technology to develop a fix. Then the revision can be sent at the speed of light and printed on site. Sending a new spore would take too long, even to our nearest stars.



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  • rocket888 #2
    Jun 20, 2017 at 2:48 pm >

    If we send a spore, and it doesn’t work though some oversight, only we on the earth will have enough technology to develop a fix. Then the revision can be sent at the speed of light and printed on site.

    I don’t think we would be sending individual spores. – More probably a package of seeds, spores, and eggs, with a range of genetic material for each species of genus. These could then be trialled to see which were most successful in getting established in the alien environment to evolve a human habitat and life support.

    Organisms evolved by selection from diversity, usually achieve better ecological function and balance than human attempts a design.

    Sending a new spore would take too long, even to our nearest stars.

    A flight to the nearest stars carrying machines or life pods, will probably take 40 years upwards, while setting up a life supporting base on a planet, moon, in an alien star system, will take decades or centuries, so flight times are probably not that critical in the time-scales of robotic construction in advance of their arrival.
    Life on an orbiting station, near or docked on an asteroid mining project could probably be established much more quickly.



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  • We had some earlier discussions on the possibilities of investigating or colonising extra-terrestrial star systems on these links:-

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2017/02/what-it-would-take-to-reach-the-stars/

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/11/stephen-hawking-just-gave-humanity-a-due-date-for-finding-another-planet/

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2013/07/microbes-to-be-last-survivors-on-future-earth/#li-comment-30054

    There are plans to further develop these [VASIMR ] engines to be powered by nuclear and later fusion reactors, and to use hydrogen extracted for orbiting ice sources as fuel.

    It is hoped to eventually reach better than 12% of light speed with this technology. It would, in the earlier stages be used for interplanetary travel within the Solar-System, and mining asteroids etc, for in-space manufacturing.

    we are talking tens or hundreds of years. Tens for each jump if we use planet-hopping to move between star systems.



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  • In any discussion of colonising extra-terrestrial planets, the size of the planet or moon and its gravity is a big issue for humans, and complex Earth organisms.

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/12/too-much-space-travel-is-hazardous-for-your-eyeballs/#li-comment-215305
    @#7 – Unlike travel in a spacecraft where artificial gravity can be produced by rotation or acceleration, as @#5, living on Mars is living in reduced gravity.
    Gravity on Mars’ surface is much lower than it is here on Earth – 62% lower to be precise. At just 0.38 of the Earth standard.

    This means that there will be immediate phenotypic adaptations in astronauts and in their offspring. – As has been shown by health monitoring of astronauts on the space stations.

    @#9 – BTW; – Also – In regard to Moon-bases:-

    Gravity on the surface of the Moon is 1.62519 m/s2, about 16.6% that on Earth’s surface or 0.16 ɡ.



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  • @OP link – “It’s a fixer-upper of a planet,” Musk told Stephen Colbert on a recent episode of The Late Show. “First you have to live in transparent domes, but eventually you can transform it into an Earthlike planet.”

    Even transparent domes look a bit dubious for long term bases.
    Underground caves are better if these can be dug, or natural ones if preserved lava tubes can be found around Mars’ extinct volcanoes.

    http://twistedsifter.com/2012/08/pictures-of-lava-tubes-around-the-world/

    But according to NASA astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild, a specialist in synthetic biology, we shouldn’t pin all of our Martian dreams on terraforming alone.

    “Terraforming is making a planet Earthlike,” Rothschild told me over the phone. “I think the chance of making Mars like the Earth—an exact replica—is pretty bad.”

    I would endorse that view.
    Attempting terraforming Mars is likely to be a disaster which destroys millennia of geological records, and melts permafrost making travel difficult. Mars is too far from the Sun, too small, and too cold.

    Adapting humans and Earth organisms to low gravity is a key issue, even before we look at Mars’ climate, which equivalent of Polar bases on Earth, because of the greater distance from the Sun and weaker sunlight.

    If the low gravity problems can be overcome, humans best bet is to use artificial light in insulated and pressurised caves, powered by photovoltaic arrays on the surface, (RTGs) nuclear generators as on the Curiosity Rover, or a nuclear power-station.

    This also gives the habitation and food production areas protection from surface radiation and meteorite impacts.



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