Aug 24, 2017

Craig Venter: DNA is going digital

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

In many ways, there was the world before humans had their genome sequence in hand — and the world after. Craig Venter was the mastermind of the private effort to map the genome in the late 1990s. Since then, he's tried to deliver on the promises that came with it, launching companies and ruffling feathers along the way.

I spoke with Venter on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. Here are some lightly edited highlights from our conversation:

How the DBC works:

It's the interconvertibility of going from the four bases of the genetic code, to ones and zeroes in the computer. You can send those ones and zeroes as electromagnetic waves then convert them back into the genetic code. The DBC actually receives the digital message as completely autonomous, literally writes out the genetic code chemically, and assembles the pieces into larger pieces.
If the end point is a protein, such as insulin, it makes the protein. If it's a vaccine, such as the flu vaccine, then it makes it automatically. It can make a phage, it can make viruses, and in theory it could make the entire bacterial genome — that would just have to be booted up. It means that because all life is DNA- based, we can send the least formula for all life digitally anywhere in the universe.

The most exciting applications for DBC:

The one that we'd like to see implemented would be totally eliminating pandemics because we can send a new vaccine around the world in a fraction of a second. If there were multiple of these receivers, it would be very easy to very quickly distribute the vaccine, which isn't the history of what's happened with vaccines.
I think there's far more exciting things. If we're really going to go to Mars and other places, it's the way to send new organisms for manufacturing there. It's a way to send a new phage for treating disease, new proteins, antibiotics, etc.

The DBC's biggest challenge:

It's a dual-use technology, so the robot we've released has all kinds of security mechanisms built in so you can't go and make small pox virus with it. That's because we control remotely the DNA synthesis portion of it and the robot just does the assembly in the latter stages. If people could just buy the DBC that does all these things, it's infinitely programmable and would make it very easy for people to make pathogenic viruses and organisms. It's not a technology problem, it's a security problem. How do you control the technology? The best way to do it is to have good countermeasures, which means more effective antibiotics, antivirals, vaccines, and it just becomes the same vicious cycle, whether it's deliberate bio-terrorism or a new emerging infection.

If this will cheapen life:

Hopefully some life forms like microbial ones for manufacturing would become common, not cheap. I spent a year in Vietnam, life became very cheap there, so that has very different context for me.
Thus far, we only have my institute and my company, Synthetic Genomics, that have truly made a synthetic cell. It's a little early on — and they weren't cheap.
If DNA synthesis and writing the genetic code becomes really faster and cheaper, which it will, it increases the odds that it will be widely used for developing new things.

If the U.S. is losing scientists:

It's not so much losing them as we're not letting them come in. That's a huge problem and a huge problem with interns and residents as well. They're being blocked from mentoring and foreign individuals are a huge source of talent in the U.S. in medicine and science.
Because we have so many sources of funding, the fact that the government is pretty incompetent...is overcome by this incredible investment community we have that creates a source of money that doesn't exist in any other country...It's all the money that is given back by people who've made it and a lot of those same people do a lot of investment on new, wild ideas, so we have ways around the sluggish, incompetence of government programs.

Thoughts about the recent gene editing of embyros:

It depends on whether they're going to be taken to term or not. We sort of decided globally at the end of World War II that the ethic was not to do human experimentation just randomly. People are editing with CRISPR and other things without proving that there's no off target effects, which there are with CRISPR.
Nobody to my knowledge has sequenced the human genome on anything they're editing. They're just assuming they're not getting off target effects. They wouldn't know what the mutations meant anyway. Germline editing is something there should be a lot of discussion on before it's ever decided to start down that slippery slope.
Polls in the past have shown that most young couples would want to use it just for superficial trait selection for their children — muscle types, hair color, eye color, things like that versus lethal disease elimination...[If manic depression is] treated as a disease that we want to eliminate from the population using CRISPR, basically the history of creativity and of humans has all been done by people with some degree of manic depression, probably including myself.
It depends what you define as a disease and if you want a population of homogenous clones. That's not a good direction for humanity.

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 716,101 — Total deaths: 33,854 — Total recoveries: 148,900.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 136,880 — Total deaths: 2,409 — Total recoveries: 2,612.
  3. Federal government latest: The first federal prisoner to die from coronavirus was reported from a correctional facility in Louisiana on Sunday.
  4. Public health updates: Fauci says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from virus.
  5. State updates: Louisiana governor says state is on track to exceed ventilator capacity by end of this week — Cuomo says Trump's mandatory quarantine comments "panicked" some people into fleeing New York
  6. World updates: Italy on Sunday reports 756 new deaths, bringing its total 10,779. Spain reports almost 840 dead, another new daily record that bring its total to over 6,500.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Trump touts press briefing "ratings" as U.S. coronavirus case surge

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump sent about a half-dozen tweets on Sunday touting the high television ratings that his coronavirus press briefings have received, selectively citing a New York Times article that compared them to "The Bachelor" and "Monday Night Football."

Why it matters: The president has been holding daily press briefings in the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, but news outlets have struggled with how to cover them live — as Trump has repeatedly been found to spread misinformation and contradict public health officials.

World coronavirus updates: Total cases surge to over 700,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

There are now than more than 700,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus around the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The virus has now killed more than 32,000 people — with Italy alone reporting over 10,000 deaths.

The big picture: Governments around the world have stepped up public health and economic measures to stop the spread of the virus and soften the financial impact. In the U.S., now the site of the largest outbreak in the world, President Trump said Saturday he would issue a "strong" travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 3 hours ago - Health