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TED Talk Introduces Potential for DNA Printing to Launch next Industrial Revolution

By April 25, 2018No Comments

Biological teleportation sounds like something futuristic, but it’s something bio-engineer Dan Gibson has already done and continues to refine, which he laid out in a presentation Friday for the TED Talks conference in Vancouver.

Teleportation is the term Gibson’s team came up with to distil 15-years worth of science that has gone into decoding genomes — the DNA instructions in living organisms — then taking the code to write out fully functioning synthetic versions of those organisms.

It isn’t exactly teleportation, but with it, Gibson said scientists can email the decoded DNA instructions for vaccines or other materials around the globe to be downloaded and printed using biological printers that the company he works for, Synthetic Genomics, makes. Synthetic Genomics is the firm created by human-genome pioneer Craig Ventner.

“Synthetic-cell technologies will power the next Industrial Revolution and transform industries and economies in ways that address sustainability challenges,” Gibson said.

One early and important task the firm has used it for in 2013 was to receive, download and print the DNA instructions for the H7N9 bird-flu virus from a team of scientists in China. That, he said, was used to start manufacturing a vaccine in a matter of days versus the months it would take using traditional methods, and the technology has vast potential to quickly send vaccines to the front lines of a pandemic zone or deliver customized therapeutics to patients almost at their bedside.

Because the technology can print any biological material, it can be used to produce bad things too, so Gibson said his company worked with government on protocols to prevent that before embarking on experiments.

Eventually, Gibson envisions possibilities to use biological printing to manufacture clothes from renewable materials, biofuel produced from bio-engineered microbes, and plastics and biodegradable plastics.

The current version of Synthetic Genomics’ printer is called the Digital to Biological Converter, Gibson said, and their objective is to keep improving and shrinking the devices and making the DNA printing more accurate to the point where they could be used in homes to print out prescriptions.

“The applications go as far as the imagination goes,” Gibson said, but for the moment he is happy with its capabilities to send medicines or customized therapies around the world.

Gibson was one of 25 speakers Friday, the fourth day of TED, who talked about developing new technologies that solve the world’s problems, and wasn’t the only speaker working on harnessing genetics.

Chemist and synthetic biologist Floyd Romesberg, from the Scripps Research Institute in California, talked about his lab’s work in synthesizing new building blocks of artificial DNA to engineer specific proteins to solve specific human problems.

“Proteins are being used today for an increasingly broad range of different applications from materials to protect soldiers from injury to devices that detect dangerous compounds,” Romesberg said.

However, what excites him the most is the potential to devise protein-based drugs that are difficult to devise now.

TED considers itself a media platform that operates on the sub-theme, “ideas worth spreading.” The TED Talks conference is presented to a live audience of some 1,500 well-heeled patrons, but videos from the conference are eventually made freely available to the public.