Geneticist J. Craig Venter told attendees at the recent Wired Health Conference in New York City that his scientific team is working on what he calls “a 3D printer for DNA, a 3D printer for life.” Such a device—which Venter also refers to as a “biological teleporter”—could be used to instantly produce vaccines, medications or biological materials anywhere in the world simply through the transfer of a digital file.
The replicator described by Venter would use an electronic file expressing DNA code that could be emailed or otherwise transferred to the receiving device. Deborah MacKenzie, writing for New Scientist, says you would need a printer “that can deposit a repertoire of nucleotides, sugars and/or amino acids where they belong, and link them up chemically.” Obviously this would be a device much more complex than today’s 3D printers that are used to replicate plastic parts, but the concept is potentially transferable to biological materials.
Speaking at a recent technology forum hosted by The Atlantic in La Jolla, Cal., Venter referred to the device as a “biological teleporter.” He told the forum, “We found a way we can move proteins, viruses and single human cells at the speed of light. We can digitize biology, send it at the speed of light and reconfigure the biology at the other end.” The device could be used to deliver vaccines on an emergency basis in case of an epidemic, Venter said. “Imagine being able to download a vaccine or your medicine on your computer at home. That’s the not-to-distant future, and it wipes out the possibility of an epidemic.”
Daniela Hernandez, writing in Wired about the New York conference, mentions some of the potential downsides of the technology. For one thing, she suggests, “downloading, printing and injecting a dangerous retrovirus masquerading as a vaccine is potentially life-threatening.” Another possible concern would be quality control: “scientists and engineers would … have to ensure that molecules are printed accurately,” as “small changes could tweak the structure and make a printed protein work in a way they didn’t intend.”
Venter is founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc., a commercial genomics firm, and of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a non-profit research organization exploring genomics. Venter is known as one of the first people to sequence and analyze the human genome.
Photo credits: Injection by Blake Patterson, CC BY 2.0; 3D printer by Creative Tools, CC BY 2.0; C. J. Craig Venter, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5.