Jul 182012
NOTE: As this article trumpets, there is no doubt that there is abundant growth in the field of artificial life. The question is whether this growth is benign, or malignant. – SynbiowatchBy Steve Kotler, cross-posted from Forbes

It’s been a good month for synthetic biology. A few weeks ago, in a great talk(on the concept of “singularities”) given to METal International in Los Angeles, biophysicist Reese Jones showed footage of the world’s first DNA laser printer at work.

You heard me right—a DNA laser printer. Created by the San Francisco-based company Cambrian Genomics(Jones is one of the founders), a DNA laser printer works just like a normal laser printer—only replace the traditional ink with genetic code.

Essentially, what Craig Venter and Blue Heron Technologies pulled off with the world’s first synthetic genome (where chemical synthesis produced 1000-base long strands of DNA which were then stitched together to form a 1,000,000-base long novel organism) was synthesis 1.0.

Here’s why.  Traditional DNA synthesis (chemical synthesis) has a 99 percent accuracy rate per 100 pairs—an impossible to manage error rate when synthesizing anything larger than a virus. But the DNA laser printer is always 100 percent accurate—hypothetically to any strand length.

And while the technology is not yet market ready (so nobody really wants to talk numbers), it bodes well for a radical shift in cost. Right now, synethesizing really short strands of DNA is about 25 cents a base (for simple work). More complex assemblies can still be as high as a $1 a base.

Once up and running, the DNA laser printer should bring this down by a factor of 1000 (some say as much as a million). Meaning, for the first time, it will soon be possible to print everything from n-to-1 personalized medical treatments (tucked inside of custom-built viruses) to entirely novel organisms….

And that’s only the first part of the news.

A little while back, The Rare Genomics Institute (RGI), a non-profit organization that uses genome sequencing and other biotechnology to help children with rare genetic diseases, decided to launch a pilot crowdfunding project. Ten kids with rare and unidentified childhood diseases were chosen. Their stories then told online, in a Kickstarter-style campaign. The raised funds paid for DNA sequencing of their genomes. RGI also assembled a team of volunteer experts to cull through the data, hunting for rare defects that would otherwise elude standard medical testing.

Just yesterday, in a little girl named Maya Neider, a rare defect was discovered—and it may indicate a brand new disease.

“Though we need to do further research to confirm this first gene discovery, it is a major milestone,” said RGI founder Jimmy Lin, MD, PhD, a physician-scientist on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis and a 2012 TED Fellow. “The most exciting part of Maya’s project is that we are enabling research that could not exist otherwise. Through RGI’s network of academic institutions and crowdfunding, we hope to remove the barriers to technology access and funding to empower families like Maya’s to advance research for their loved one’s rare disease.”

But when these technologies are combined, as Singularity University synthetic biologist Andrew Hessel explains, things get downright revolutionary: “Right now, this work is being done by scientific leaders, but with these sorts of democratizing breakthroughs, it won’t take much to create whole industries. An eco-system is developing. The pipeline of potential applications is going to be enormous.”

Editor (Legacy)

Read previous post:
Synthetic Collaborations and Experimental Human Science

This review of Dr. Paul Rabinow's new book appeared on Biopolitical Times Synthetic Collaborations and Experimental Human Science, by Daniel Sharp...