Biologist Craig Venter has previously built a brand-new species of bacteria through chemical synthesis. For now, we can’t literally print synthetic lifeforms, but we might be getting close since Craig has actually created a machine that can automatically synthesise DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins and viral particles. This is all done on it’s own with no human intervention apart from sending the DNA sequence.
This is pretty big news: printing the building blocks of life like ‘ink’ from a printer. Elon Musk has already teamed up with Venter in the hopes of printing synthetic life on Mars. The prototype was being worked on for years, but now the machine works in building some basics of life. Successfully constructing something larger like bacteria is being worked on, and who knows how far it can go in building life forms. First it was an idea that was part of science-fiction, now it’s becoming more of a science-reality.
‘Right now, it prints proteins. In the far future, it could print human babies on Mars.’
Messages can be sent to the digital-to-biological converter (DBC) tabletop prototype via the internet or even radio waves. The machine can print the bases of DNA (guanine, thymine, cytosine, and adenine) to form the desired biological component. Instead of bottles of colour in a regular printer, it takes bottles of chemicals.
And to think, all of this construction happens in nature, without human machines to get it done. It’s amazing that nature can do it, and also that a machine can replicate some of that complexity of the biological formation of life.
“Just like a printer, it needs cassettes, but instead of colours, it’s bottles of chemicals,” Venter said over the phone. “It’s packaging complex biology that each of our tiny cells do remarkably well at a much, much smaller scale.”
One of the viruses created so far has been the H1N1 influenza. I hope that was only a test, as I don’t see making viruses to be useful when thinking of colonising another planet. The machine can also create bacteriophages to fight bacterial infections. We could potentially create a bacterial environment similar to Earth on Mars.
Are we getting closer to the fictional technological era of Star Trek?
If we can create basic biological components now, and working towards more complex forms like bacteria, eventually humanity might see the ability to print food or other life forms. This calls into question ethics of printing food that we eat, and printing other beings, but it’s interesting to see where this might lead us. In Star Trek, they have the replicator technology to make anything they wanted to eat. I never saw them make animals though.
Is synthetic life on earth — like the new species of bacteria — something we should welcome? Do we have a choice if they are already building machines to do it?
Things I hadn’t heard of other than in science fiction, are now starting to be developed in its infancy. New life forms with different DNA, and the printing of DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins and viral particles. We live in amazing times. What will the future hold?