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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.