What’s your big idea?
The worlds of the genetic code, the chemicals A, C, G and T, are becoming interchangeable with the digital world, the ones and zeroes of computers, and we did this first with learning how to read the genetic code and converting the A, C, Gs and Ts into the computer code, and now we’ve been going the other direction, starting with ones and zeroes, re-writing the chemical code and then using that to create new life. So it’s a concept of the rapid interchangeability of DNA and digital information, the applications of that are we can now send life at the speed of light; send electromagnetic waves through the internet for example and recapitulate it at the other end, so in the future you’ll actually be able to download living things from your computer.
So you would be able to then create a life form that has been beamed, let’s say from Mars?
Yes, so part of the implications, and I use that for example if we had a DNA sequencing robot on Mars and we drilled down deep into the water layer and discovered micro-organisms, we could sequence the DNA and then send that back in as little as 4.3 minutes versus having a multi-billion dollar rocket go up and try and blast off from Mars, fly back, and try and safely land on Earth. So very different to do it as digital information versus having to move physical entities.
What are some of the real life implications of this?
It changes our notion of where we might think about life, to understanding that we are DNA-based software systems. Humans are pretty elaborate DNA software-based systems, but we’re fundamentally still DNA-based software systems, and the fact that we can interchange that with the digital world has lots of implications. We’re dealing with some of the ones now we hope will have the fastest impact and the most helpful impact. We can now send a flu vaccine as digital information, through the Internet, and we generate that vaccine at the other end. We’re actually doing this with the Novartis vaccine site in North Carolina, where we can actually send digital information and regenerate whatever the latest changes in the flu virus are, to have a vaccine go right into production there. So it has real world applications now. In the future, instead of just having one site, maybe each country will have one, maybe each business will, maybe each school will, or eventually each home computer will have a device that can do that. And if that becomes the case, then pandemics, such as in the movie Contagion, should become things of ancient history.
How does synthetic life change our perspective on the definition of what is life?
In 1944, Schrodinger’s famous lecture in Dublin that he turned into his book called What Is Life?, the world had no idea what the genetic material was. Scientists thought it was proteins, not DNA. So we’ve gone, basically—I just turned 67, so a little bit longer than my life span—from not knowing what the genetic code is to learning that it was DNA, then it was Watson and Crick learning what the structure of the DNA was, and with people like Marshall Nirenberg and Gobind Khorana looking at what the actual triplet genetic code was and how it coded for proteins, to in the 1970s being able to read the genetic code for the first time from viruses, to what we did in 1995 of decoding the first genome of a living organism, and then five years later decoding the human living organism. So we’ve been going through this process of understanding that life was based on DNA, and then being able to understand how that was based, and then reading that genetic code and then in the last several years, we’ve gone the other way; we started with the ones and zeroes on the computer, we wrote the genetic code, showing that what we had in the computers was the key information for establishing life. We made the chromosome from four bottles of chemicals, booted that up and created a living cell based totally on that chromosome, so I think we proved that life is a DNA software system, all life as we know it is based on DNA and all life as we know it is based on our DNA software. Well that’s somewhat of an over-simplification, but it emphasizes the clear information, software role of our genetic code.
How were you able to create life forms out of 3D printers?
They’re not truly 3D printers in the same way, but basically it’s a robot that does DNA synthesis and uses the four chemical bases of DNA. And it’s driven by the computer program and the code that’s in the computer, to re-create the genetic code once you get back to living—I mean biologically based—DNA molecules you can re-capitulate life from them, whether it’s making DNA that’s effective to make a virus, or a simple bacterial cell, like we recorded in 2010, or just making the proteins like insulin. It’s all well-established chemistry coupled with the breakthroughs that we’ve had in the past few years on the ability to write the simple pieces of DNA to re-generate the code.
What is next in our understanding of life?
We’re dealing with, obviously by comparison with human life, remarkably simple bacteria; they’re not simple at all, but our complexity is because we have a hundred trillion cells with a diverse function, inner stem cell drive, different organs, so we have a long way to go in how our hundred trillion cells get together to form even higher functions that we see at a single celled level. Obviously, understanding that we’re DNA software systems does not explain consciousness or the overall function of the brain, but those functions, like everything else in life, derive from the genetic code. And we just have to learn those rules and learn that language to understand how that happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.