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domingo, 29 de julho de 2012

THE BIOLOGICAL-DIGITAL CONVERTER, OR, BIOLOGY AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT


J. CRAIG VENTER


These are exciting and challenging times for science and society. If you look at the practical side of things, in the next 11 years we're going to add a billion people to the planet, so basically the equivalent of China being added in 11 years, and 12 years after that we're going to add another billion people. Last October we just passed the 7 billion mark, and that took 12 years to happen from 6 billion. In the 1800s it took well over 100 years to go from 1 to 2 billion people. We're in a unique time in history where there are more people alive than have ever existed in human history, and we keep expanding tremendously, and exhausting the resources of the planet.
There are a number of things that come into play here. We've been doing everything from trying to understand the human genome, and human genetic inheritance, and we have teams that are doing some of the first genomes of early populations in Africa and have traced down actually the oldest populations in Southern Africa that we all have evolved from, from groups that migrated out of Africa. It turns out I have a Northern European ancestry primarily, and so we probably all share this. My ancestors, and probably most of yours found Neanderthals attractive and mated with them. And so what was thought to not be any coexistence, we now ... 3 to 4 percent of my genome is Neanderthal-derived. My friend, Bill Clinton, when we shared an honor a couple of years ago, told me he learned that he was 3 percent Neanderthal, and that explained all his problems while in office.
We're learning about our own history, our own migrations, but we have to do something different for the future. A major producer once argued that we have two hopes for humanity, one is to be able to populate distant planets, and the other is to alter our genetic code so we can survive in a very deteriorated environment here on the planet.
We're working on both, and there are some exciting changes. Science is changing things very quickly. Think about how the Internet has changed all of our lives in the last decade or so. I assume most people here have an iPad, and that's three years old, barely? And it's hard to imagine life without an iPad in our culture. But very soon we're going to be able to send something else across the Internet. We can now send biology at the speed of light, and this is one of the implications of our work, which we recorded two years ago making the first synthetic life form. We completely synthesized the genetic code of a cell starting with a digital code in the computer—it's the ultimate interface between computers and biology. The digital code and the genetic code have a lot in common; something Schrodinger pointed out in 1943, saying it could be something as simple as the Morse code.
Digital code, as you know, is a binary code, and ones and zeroes, and your genetic code is literally four-base code with ACGs and Ts. We can now readily convert in between the two, and we can define life at its most basic level. Things that were a mystery fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, we now understand completely.
We know what a cell is, know that all the components, all the proteins in the cell are miniature robots. They don't have a brain, they don't have a soul, they have a structure that defines their function, and their structure is determined by the genetic code, which defines the linear code of the protein, which determines how it folds, how it functions, and how stable it is. You don't feel it sitting there, but every one of your 100 trillion cells is rapidly metabolizing proteins. Your proteins have a half-life between a few seconds and ten or twenty hours. You don't know that you're sloughing 500 billion skin cells a day. All that dust you find around your houses, in your apartments? That's you, little bits of you. You turn over your entire skin every two to three weeks. Biology is a constant state of renewal, and it's a software-driven state of renewal. Take the DNA out of the cell, and the cell dies. In fact, that's why radiation kills people. It disrupts the genetic code, breaks it up, and people die because all the proteins degrade very quickly.
But imagine if you could e-mail yourself to Mars or some distant planet. We can actually do that now, because with our synthetic cell, we start with the digital code in the computer, and there's no difference between digital code and genetic code. Because digital code can move as an electromagnetic wave, basically close to the speed of light, we can now move biology at the speed of light. This has some practical applications.
The recent movie Contagion portrayed how everybody died from flu pandemic, while awaiting the vaccine. Real life is much better than science fiction. We can now make a new flu vaccine in less than twelve hours using synthetic DNA. Instead of having to deal with a major pandemic where you can't travel out of your home or your city, imagine that you had a little box next to your computer, and you got an e-mail, and that gave you a chance to actually make a vaccine instantly, sort of like 3D printers. What we do with information now, we will be doing with information and biology together.
Obviously the downside is you could instead of giving your partner a genetic disease or an infection, you can e-mail it. So people could use this to do harm, as we see with computer viruses all the time. You would, of course, want good computer and biological virus protection on your DNA decoder.
Many of us know the space, electric car, and solar energy inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk, whose rockets are doing extremely well. Based on this success, within a decade we're likely going to see attempts to colonize the moon. Elon wants to colonize Mars. Depending on how close moon and Mars are to each other, it takes between four minutes and twenty-one minutes for an electromagnetic wave, for light, to go from Earth to Mars. But imagine you're on a colony on Mars, and you want a new cell that produces food, or fuel, or some medicine, or a vaccine, you can just e-mail that and convert it back into biology.
The idea that you're basically a DNA-driven software device is not the view that people necessarily have of themselves. But every cell on this planet works that way in a biological-to-mechanical kind of fashion. No brain controlling what happens with DNA reading and protein synthesis in your cells. The combination of one hundred trillion cells gives different people different abilities to make wonderful music, to make science advances, to think, but every one of those cells operates in the same fashion. And that means we will be able to decode how the brain functions by understanding these same mechanisms. There's no need to evoke mysticism or a higher being. That's what Schrodinger did seventy years ago. He couldn't explain things, so he did what people do when they can't explain something. He evokes mysticism. But science is getting very advanced with regard our understanding life. We know what it is, and we now know how to reproduce it. We produce life by writing new software.
Our announcement made eighteen months ago, was one of the few science announcements that received an immediate response from the President and the Pope. The President asked his Bioethics Commission to start looking at this development as their number one issue, and the Vatican released a statement that all we did was change one of the engines of life. They said it could lead to some important advances, but it wasn't creating life itself.
But DNA is not the engine of life, it's the software of life; the proteins are the engines, they're driven directly by that code in a very understandable, predictable fashion now. This has implications in many different areas.
We have teams trying to work on new sources of food, actually designing new food in the computer. It may be awhile before they taste as wonderful as some of the food we had tonight, but we can actually design foods that have very high nutritional components to them, and we're learning a lot as a society about food chemistry. The Olympics are about to hit London. Many of the Olympic athletes have special physicians and nutritionists. They're giving them certain types of proteins. These Olympic trainers can actually sculpt people's bodies in very specific fashions, depending on which muscle groups they want it to go.
We are chemical beings, and we're software-driven beings, and once you understand that, then you can write new software. Anything becomes possible. We're trying to design cells to make new sources of energy, recycling carbon dioxide, getting these same cells to maybe use their recycled CO2 to make food, as well as fuel. It was an exciting change at least at a stage when we're exhausting our existing natural resources, and unless we can just stop population expansion, we have to do something pretty drastic in new sources of food, fuel, water and medicine.
It's an exciting time for science, it's an exciting time for society, but I'm sure there are a lot of strange thoughts running through your minds about the implications of some of this and where it might take us. We were tossing around ideas earlier. We're trying to make meat just by making beef and chicken muscle proteins without the cow and the chicken. And so I was calling it "motherless meat". And then Brian Eno came up with the line that it was "murderless" meat.
Those of you who are vegetarians are going to have real dilemmas in the future of not knowing what's meat and what's vegetable, because in fact, we can grow these meat proteins in vegetables. In fact, vegetables have most of the same proteins that are in meat anyway. Our definitions of life are getting clearer; the social ambiguities are getting greater.
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