Does the Future Include Synthetic Life?

Loose notes from the SXSW 2011 session Does the Future Include Synthetic Life?

J. Craig Venter is a biologist most known for his contributions, in 2001, of sequencing the first draft human genome and in 2007 for the first complete diploid human genome. In 2010 he and his team announced success in constructing the first synthetic bacterial cell. He is a founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and founder and CEO of the company, Synthetic Genomics Inc (JCVI). His present work focuses on creating synthetic biological organisms and applications of this work, and discovering genetic diversity in the world’s oceans. Dr. Venter is the 2008 National Medal of Science and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is the author of A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life (Viking, 2007).

Craig Venter
Founder, Chairman
J Craig Venter Institute

What is life? Can we digitize it? Can we generate life out of the computer?

15 years since we first decoded a genome. It’s scaled up since then. We can now sequence with a $6,000 desktop computer what formerly took a roomful. In 1999 we needed the third largest computer in the world; now we can plug in a teraflop accelerator on a PCI card.

Venter was the first person to have his genome completely decoded. There is between one and three percent difference between unrelated humans.

Only 60% of chemicals in a human are a result of our metabolism. The rest come from the things we eat – plants and animals, etc.

Venter has had his genome sequenced, and stem cells have been generated from his own skin. They can actually make sperm or brain cells from the stem cells from his skin. But “I’m not ready to have those neurons put back into my brain just yet.”

Synthetic life: First life form announced a year ago. Techniques for writing genetic code are pretty primitive. This software (DNA) builds its own hardware (virus). Venter can now build an entire mouse mitochondria in a test tube. We can actually do it all without human intervention, and can “boot up” a totally synthetic chromosome.

By changing the DNA in a cell, they can change one species into another.

“We have precise molecular scissors that cut DNA at specific places.”

Life is a DNA software system. Change the software, you change the species.

Imagine if 10% of the parts in your car had to be replaced every hour. That’s how cells work.

If you take DNA out of the cells, the cells die. Cells need software.

We can now grow bacterial chromosomes in yeast, creating new species in the process.

We had to develop debugging software to debug our chromosomal transformations. Out of 1.1 million letters in a sequence, we could be off by a single letter, which would result in life not taking hold. The successful cell, whose parent is a computer, not an organism, has replicated over a billion times, and would keep going forever if we let it. This truly is synthetic life.

They figured out how to encode messages in the DNA – they encoded first a URL, then pieces of literature – James Joyce, Richard Feynman, and Prometheus. Joyce’s estate actually contacted them and complained about copyright violation!

This stuff is incredibly useful for creating vaccines.

We can’t keep burning fossil fuels and not do irreversible harm. The oceans are our largest carbon sink, but we’ve now saturated that sink.

Venter wants us to be generating fuel from algae, not corn – algae is vastly more efficient per space requirement.

Does Venter intend to reserve benefits of his research for profit, or to share it with the world? Whatever we do has to be economically viable. V’s institute is not-for-profit. There is IP protection around some of the key findings, but that’s what enables the work to go forward. They try to strike a balance between being self-sustaining and keeping things open.

“This is the start of digital-biological interfaces. This species had a computer as its parent. We’re going to see a lot more of these. Hopefully this will take positive directions.”

There are now contests for high schoolers who are trying to write this DNA software.

How do you physically handle this stuff? You can’t see what you’re doing – your only option is to understand intellectually what’s happening. We use electric current to move them in and out of cell walls, in and out of tubes, etc. It’s a very abstract process.

When we set up a six square mile facility based on a synthetic life form to generate fuel, we don’t want that life form to evolve – we want it to remain stable forever – this has to be controlled for.

Evolution is both our friend and our enemy. e.g. HIV’s rapid pace of evolution makes it so hard to solve for.

“What I cannot create I do not understand.” -Feynman

There are now three people on the earth for every one that existed the day I was born.

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