Transmitting genetic instructions using a digital medium and converting that data to create an actual organism can become a normal practice in the future as scientists have successfully built a prototype doing the same. Dubbed as a biological teleporter, the machine is capable of sending out a digital code of DNA to have them printed or manufactured at the receiving end. Scientists from Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) have built the machine which will allow us to transmit genetic code of any organism across the world or even the solar system.
The entire device is essentially a combination of other smaller machines and robots, together taking up an equivalent space of a “Fiat 500 car”. Still, in its prototype stage, the “digital-to-biological converter” ensures that the conversion of the digital code is made possible. After a series of experiments from last year, they were successfully able to transmit genetic code digitally to the converter from another machine placed at a different location in the same building. As a trial, the DNA of the common flu virus was transmitted and automatically printed by the machine. This was the first time when a virus was automatically manufactured using DNA without any human intervention.
What will the converter achieve?
The device will find applications in various fields of science. The most recent achievable application will be to deliver vaccines and cures anywhere around the world in case of a disease outbreak. Transporting the cure for a deadly disease across thousands of miles can be a situation of life and death literally. The time spent in delivering them will become instantaneous since the digital code can be forwarded to the concerned facility with the click of a button. Do note, this will only reduce the delivery time of the cure but not its development. Depending on the vaccine, the amount of time taken for it to develop and be ready to be deployed still follows the existing procedure. Hospitals and medical centres equipped with the converters will find it easy to acquire the digital code by having an on-demand supply of the genetic code.
The search for extraterrestrial life has been going on for a long time and we already have Curiosity exploring the Martian planet. In a few years, the Mars 2020 Rover will be sent to Mars to actually search for preserved organic life forms. If the 2020 Rover does come across ancient microbes, having the sequencer on board would have made it possible for it to transmit the data over to Earth. This way we could directly manufacture the extinct microbes to simulate the early life on the red planet. For now, the device is huge and we’ll have to wait for further research until it can be shrunk down to fit on a launching vehicle. But hey, remember how big the first camera or the first computer was? Look at them now.
The biggest or ultimate application would be sending human life data to other planets and eventually populating them. Although it sounds like sci-fi, the SGI scientists were successful in creating a “minimal cell” which is a bacterium holding the smallest genome sequence. This will serve as a template to add or remove genetic digital data. But transmitting an actual life form hasn’t been conducted since apparently a virus isn’t considered to be alive. Research is on and we’ll hopefully keep hearing positive news from the labs of SGI.
Source: MIT Technology Review