It felt like a part of science fiction coming true while on our journey at Search of Life, when I stumbled upon the news that a San Francisco-based startup “Cambrian Genomics” is creating the world’s first DNA laser printer. And much to my surprise, I met with the bold words of Austen Heinz, CEO of “Cambrian Genomics” – “We print life. Life is very simple, it’s just code. Four letters — we print that.”
The cost of writing DNA, or DNA synthesis, is roughly $1 per base pair of DNA. The amount of base pairs in the human genome would cost approximately few billions to synthesise (probably 3 to 5 billions). One of the big challenges with DNA synthesis is error correction during fabricating the correct sequence of A, T, G and Cs. This happens because the chemistries are on average 99% efficient.
Cambrian Genomics solves this problem by fabricating billions of strands at once, quickly (and cheaply) optically sequencing them and then selecting the correct DNA sequences using a fast moving laser. The etched DNA can then be injected into a cell.
We print life. Life is very simple, it’s just code. Four letters — we print that.
The overall idea seems like – the primary nucleobases viz. adenine (A), cytosine (C), thymine (T), and guanine (G) form base pairs in a specific order to create strands of DNA. This is a crucial scientific breakthrough. Because of the time and cost saved from the printer, researchers will be able to generate larger quantities of DNA. It will lead to massive implications for the betterment of our planet and our health.
Heinz has also mentioned that – “Everything that’s alive can be made better and more useful to humankind, including human cells. Plants can be made to take out much more carbon out of the atmosphere. We can make humans that are born without disease that can live much longer. We can make humans that can interface directly with computers by growing interfaces into the brain.”
Everything that’s alive can be made better and more useful to humankind, including human cells.
DNA laser printing technology could have a bigger impact on society than the internet did. DNA feeds us, provides our energy. Watch the following video for a better understanding of how the DNA Laser Printer works.
As per industry experts – some of the technology Heinz is using has been around for a few years, but no other company has been able to utilize it in such an efficient way. The major value addition for Cambrian Genomics is how cheaply it can print DNA. It used to cost about $0.01 to sequence a base pair; now it costs about $0.0000001. Synthesis, on the other hand, used to cost about $3 per base pair; now it costs roughly $0.50.
The ability to write life as easy as you write computer code is a recipe to kill everyone.
While coding a human from scratch is a ways off, what can be written is growing exponentially. Still, there are ethical concerns due to the fact that potentially deadly diseases come from small sequences.
For example, Ebola is only 18,000 base pairs and Smallpox is similar. Heinz very well aware of the dangers involved also quoted that – “You can create something that could kill millions of people pretty easily. The ability to write life as easy as you write computer code is a recipe to kill everyone.”
We are standing now near another technology that seems to change our lives in a big way – good or bad, would, of course, be decided by us, by our actions. Otherwise, no technology means destruction – it is evil within us.