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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.

Go deeper

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."