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Synthesizing Life Means Faster Cures, Biologist Says
A leader in the field of synthetic biology, J. Craig Venter considers himself an optimist, but he can see the halfway point on the glass that's not full.
Venter, a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, talked about investment into scientific research during The Atlantic Meets the Pacific forum in La Jolla, Calif., Monday. The event looks at the intersection of technology and ideas with society and human use.
"You can't be a successful researcher and not be an optimist," he said. "If you talk yourself out of doing the experiment, you'll never get any research done."
The most exciting idea he's working on is what he calls biological teleportation -- translated: downloading insulin at home from the Internet.
"We found a way we can move proteins, viruses and single human cells at the speed of light," he said. "We can digitize biology, send it at the speed of light and reconfigure the biology at the other end. "
Right now, Venter's lab can get a pandemic virus via electromagnetic wave, download it and have a vaccine ready to fight the virus made much sooner.
The first try was successfully synthesizing a bacterial cell two years ago, on the heels of his successes at sequencing the human genome. Despite that, he says, we don't know much about biology -- we don't fully understand the fundamentals. For instance, there hasn't been as much emphasis on writing the genome code as there is on reading it.
Even though we have a huge overlap between the digital world and the biological world, we can't replicate it, he observed. He's working on a robot that can synthesize research much faster than humans.
"Imagine being able to download a vaccine or your medicine on your computer at home," Venter said. "That's the not-to-distant future, and it wipes out the possibility of an epidemic."
The progress, he suggested, will come from privately supported research.
"When you're working in the middle of it and you see how slow things are, you should be outraged by the amount of federal money that goes into research and how few breakthroughs there are," Venter said. "All the breakthroughs have come from private money that allows you to do what federal money won't let you do."