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nucleotide bases are converted into computerized ones and zeros. While there hasn’t been as much attention focused on writing genes as there has been on reading them, Venter says this “digital interface” between computing and biology now makes it possible for scientists to synthesize a genome—and create new organisms—by using computers to write the DNA and design each gene.
—Through a process he calls digital biological conversion, Venter says it would be possible to send a robotic genetic sequencer to Mars to sequence the genome of a microbe in a Martian soil sample—and transmit the sequence back to Earth. The data could then be used in a high-level biocontainment laboratory to replicate the Martian organism—by synthesizing its genome and inserting it into a living cell. Such “biological teleportation” means the genome of an organism isolated and sequenced by a rover on Mars could be transmitted to Earth nearly at the speed of light, arriving in just 4.3 minutes when the two planets are closest together. Sound like science fiction? The idea presumes that life on Mars, if it can be found, is also based on DNA. Nevertheless, Venter has said his team has been using an automated gene sequencer in California’s Mojave Desert to sequence organisms from soil samples and transmit the data to the Internet.
—The same digital biological converter technology could be used to transmit vaccines in a pandemic. Venter said that 250,000 people died during the nine months it took to sequence the H1N1 virus and synthesize a vaccine. Using digital biological conversion technology would take less than a day, Venter said. “I’m predicting that in the not-too-distant future there’ll be a home version of this. There will just be a simple box attached to your computer and you’ll be able to download and ‘print’ your vaccine from the Internet,” Venter said.
—The human microbiome—the trillions of microbes in the body that add up to several pounds—is becoming increasingly important to understanding human biology. Of the 450 to 550 proteins that circulate in the bloodstream, Venter says about 60 percent are produced by human genes, 30 percent come from what we eat and drink, and about 10 percent are bacterial. For example, Venter says alcohol-induced liver damage is not caused directly by alcohol but rather by a microbial toxin released in the presence of alcohol. The human phenotype—the interaction of human genes in this environment—is going to become the most important way to understand human biology, Venter said.