Digital Life

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

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 In the recent history of biology it would be hard to imagine a character more colorful, imaginative, and controversial than J. Craig Venter, who both runs a non-profit research institute that bears his name and a for-profit biotech company Synthetic Genomics, Inc. There are not many scientists in any field that have managed to balance public, private, and academic interests; gain substantial wealth; and remain on the cutting edge of inquiry. Come to think of it, only one individual comes to mind: Dr. Venter. 

No matter what side of any given Venter controversy (and there are many) you fall on, the man’s genius is undeniable. For more than twenty years Venter has pushed at the boundaries of genetics, DNA, and the synthesis of life – if there is a “father” of synthetic biology it is probably he. Consistently casting his eyes far beyond the observable research horizons, Venter has the gumption, money, and insight to tackle just about any problem he sets his sights upon. And because he has built a private, highly profitable empire,  Venter can stick with a quest, searching and struggling to answer a problem for years if need be, while his academic competitors, dependent on government grants, may run out of funds long before their inquiries bear fruit.

This financial staying power of course garners jealousy, and Venter has his enemies.

In Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life Venter brushes his critics aside, assumes credit for a litany of major discoveries, and offers a vision of the future that is at once exhilarating and frightening. Here’s classic Venter: “When we announced our creation of the first synthetic cell, some had asked whether we were ‘playing God.’ In the restricted sense that we had shown in this experiment how God was unnecessary for the creation of new life, I suppose that we were.”

Venter set out over twenty years ago to prove that most, and maybe even all, of the instructions necessary for life are contained in the nucleic acid genetic code, either DNA or RNA.  He raced against the National Institutes of Health to be the first to sequence the entire genetic code of a human being, built a virus (X174) from its code up, and then kept on going at high speed.  Life at the Speed of Light is an experiment-by-experiment journey through Venter’s efforts, revealing the logic behind each laboratory decision and conclusion. As one discovery builds upon another, Venter gets closer to his ultimate goal of creating a life form, from synthesized DNA.  Getting there required his team’s creation of the fastest, most accurate gene sequencers on Earth. On the eve of achieving his goal Venter pauses to consider:

My thinking about life had crystallized as we conducted this research. DNA was the software of life, and if we changed that software, we changed the species, and thus the hardware of the cell. This is precisely the result that those yearning for evidence of some vitalistic force feared would come out of good reductionist science, of trying to break down life, and what it meant to be alive, into basic functions and simple components.

Image via  Wikimedia Commons

In 2010 Venter’s team succeeded, creating a DNA sequence, inserting it into the membrane of a M. mycoides cell and naming the organism JCVI-syn 1.0 (J. Craig Venter Institute synthesis 1.0). The new creature replicated, proving it was a life form. President Barack Obama appointed a bioethics panel which reviewed the experiment, concluding Venter had not actually created a new life form, as the cell membrane sack into which his man-made DNA sequence was inserted was a naturally existing entity. Ergo, the White House concluded the outer sac defined JCVI-syn 1.0 as a preexisting life form, even if its code was entirely man-made.

In the three-and-a-half years hence Venter has set his sights on digitizing life, designing and writing “new software to program living cells,” as he puts it. The White House may have decided the outer sac determined species, but Venter insists the DNA code is a life form’s defining characteristic. In Venter parlance, the DNA and RNA are software, while the cell and its other components are hardware. Following his analogy, PC users rely on a shared Microsoft software system, which may be used on thousands of different computer hardware platforms of widely varying sizes and qualities.  Like computer software, sequences of genes can be written, hacked, mutated, damaged by viruses, and transmitted. Marrying sequence composition to 3D-printing, with nucleotides replacing inks or plastics, Venter envisions “digital life.”

He is now testing that vision in collaboration with NASA, using prototypes in the Mojave Desert to rehearse a hoped life-transmitting effort from Mars. A prototype Mars landing robot scoops up ground samples, and runs meta-genomic screening to determine whether nucleic acids are present. If such building blocks of life are found, the robot determines its sequence and transmits the DNA “software” to Earth, where 3D-printing may allow a life form from the third rock from the sun to live and reproduce on the fourth rock.