DNA: The next big hacking frontier
Imagine computer-designed viruses that cure disease, new bacteria capable of synthesizing an unlimited fuel supply, new organisms that wipe out entire populations and bio-toxins that target world leaders. They sound like devices restricted to feature-film script writers, but it is possible to create all of these today, using the latest advances in synthetic biology.
Just as the personal computer revolution brought information technology from corporate data centers to the masses, the biology revolution is personalizing science.
In 2000, scientists at a private company called Celera announced that the company had raced ahead of the U.S. government-led international effort decoding the DNA of a human being. Using the latest sequencing technology, plus the data available from the Human Genome project, Celera scientists had created a working draft of the genome. These efforts cost over $1 billion, combined.
That speed and cost has since been significantly reduced, at double the rate of Moore’s Law, and the process can be done by a variety of companies. Today, it is possible to decode your DNA for a few thousand dollars. Expect the price to drop to the cost of a regular blood test within five years and, shortly thereafter, a cup of coffee.
But this process is about “reading” DNA. It is now possible to “write” it — a revolution in biology.
Craig Venter, who led the research at Celera, announced a decade later, in May 2010, that his team had, for the first time in history, built a synthetic life form — by “writing” DNA. Christened Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, also known as, “Synthia,” the slow-growing, harmless bacterium was made of a synthetic genome with 1,077,947 DNA base pairs.
The technology that Venter used to “boot up” this new organism was the equivalent of a laser printer that can “print” DNA.