Digital to Biological Printer

by on June 16, 2017 at 12:14 pm in Science | Permalink

In Nature Biotechnology Gibson, Venter et al. describe a biologic printer that can take instructions from the web and without human intervention “print” a variety of biologics:

…DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins and viral particles were produced in an automated fashion from digitally transmitted DNA sequences without human intervention.

Motherboard has a good writeup:

“If you had [a DBC] hooked up to your desktop computer, we could email you insulin or a vaccine, and the device would produce it for you ready-to-go,” Venter said. “If you think about all the protein-based drugs that are out there… If you can get those by email instead of getting them from the pharmacy, is conceptually going to be a very different world.”

And what is the ultimate goal?

Right now, it prints proteins. In the far future, it could print human babies on Mars.

Hat tip: Martin Laurence.

1 The Other Jim June 16, 2017 at 12:19 pm

>it could print human babies on Mars

Sure. Right about the same time you have a self-driving car.

2 Dzhaughn June 16, 2017 at 12:48 pm

But, you have to get the human woman there first. No need for men to travel.

Mars Needs Women

3 Mark Thorson June 16, 2017 at 1:27 pm

A flying self-driving car.

4 Ray Lopez June 16, 2017 at 1:57 pm

A flying self-driving car, that replicates the driver, WIRELESSLY. They have an app for dat!

5 dan1111 June 16, 2017 at 2:39 pm

Self driving cars actually exist and have driven a couple million miles.

Skepticism about whether they can be a viable mass market product in the near term is a defensible position. Treating them like a pie in the sky fantasy is not.

6 jim2 June 16, 2017 at 4:47 pm

In the medium term, we will print steaks – no more cow farts or vegan rants about beef inputs. No more beef with beef.

7 Ray Lopez June 16, 2017 at 10:46 pm

Print steaks with soybean derivative inkjet ink, the ultimate in green vegan beef!

8 Daniel Weber June 16, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Do they actually have something?

This presents great challenges for recuperating pharma research as well as drug regulation. Talking about printing babies is sensationalist, stupid, and distracting.

9 Martin June 16, 2017 at 1:17 pm

+1. This is what’s important: this device is the pharmaceutical equivalent of the “ghost gunner”. I seriously doubt that *this* version is any better than a traditional lab. Give it ten years…

10 Daniel Weber June 18, 2017 at 2:37 pm

We may be living in the short age of DNA evidence. 30 years ago we couldn’t read them reliably enough; in 30 years I reprint your DNA and leave it all over a crime scene.

11 Ben June 16, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Yes, the ability to on-demand print DNA, RNA, proteins is a wee bit important. I’m not clear from a quick reading, but if they have also automated the ability to insert the DNA in capsids, then they’ve automated everything you need to start modifying you own genes.

Soon PirateBay will have biologics available, at which point you have ended the FDA’s stranglehold on pharma and innovation in genetic engineering.

12 Martin June 16, 2017 at 1:58 pm

This is not currently possible. This is just the synthesis and insertion a plasmid (small DNA chromosome) in E. coli for protein synthesis.

13 Martin June 16, 2017 at 2:04 pm

Any virus which can be fully assembled in E coli can be produced (they synthesize a bacteriophage as an example in the paper), but I’m not sure if human viruses can be fully assembled by E coli. Anyone know? However, this opens the door for very narrow range bacteriophage antibiotics, which only target a single bacterial species.

14 Martin June 16, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Another major application is the synthesis of virus surface proteins necessary for vaccines. This machine will prevent epidemics like the 1918 flu, for those whose can afford it!

15 TheAngryPhilosopher June 17, 2017 at 5:07 pm

Of course, yet another major application is the synthesis of viruses.

That might be a little further in the future, since viruses are a little more complex than single proteins. Prions on the other hand…

16 Ray Lopez June 16, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Talking about printing babies is sensationalist, stupid, and distracting . But this is common with laypeople with no science background (read: economists). They assume inventions are exogenous to an economy, just “drop from the sky”, even the famous Nobel-winning Solow model assumes so. And they assume diminishing returns (Cobbs-Douglass production function) in a smooth fashion, and they assume general equilibrium, which makes the math easier. Their big insight is “free trade” and they think the ideal state of the world is where Marginal Cost = Marginal Revenue and we all work for Malthusian minimum wage. That’s their big insight. In the real world, you need incentive to innovate and that’s why I doubt this invention will be seen anytime soon.

17 Brian Donohue June 16, 2017 at 3:31 pm

So… incentives matter?

Why do we have to hear this from a dissolute old fellow on the other side of the globe? Why have no economists ever hit on this big insight?

18 Thiago Ribeiro June 17, 2017 at 2:40 pm

Actually president Temer, whose wife is younger than half his age, has pointed it many times, saying that economic incetives must be oreserved so they tell businesspeople what to produce and how much to produce.

19 athEIst June 18, 2017 at 2:25 am

Ray has never said he was old, fat, yes. Dissolute is such an imprecise term.

20 rayward June 16, 2017 at 1:11 pm

For some reason, this post on the biologic printer made me think about these explanations of AHCA: I’m not sure if it’s because, like the biologic printer, the explanations are like science fiction or because they are both bullshit.

21 Jay June 16, 2017 at 1:12 pm

> it could print human babies on Mars

Even clickbait internet newspapers call that statement a little bit sensationalist and anyone that quotes that to the media is hard to take seriously. It’s essentially printing simple proteins we could already manufacture and just automating the process chain, that’s a completely different language away from printing babies.

22 Mark Thorson June 16, 2017 at 1:36 pm

This has been going on forever. Nicola Tesla made the claim he would be able to split the world like an egg by driving it into resonance with his transmitter. It’s showmanship. The trick is to get into the Daily Mail without losing the New York Times. I think Venter may have hit the sweet spot with this one.

23 Believe it! June 16, 2017 at 1:42 pm

The thing is Tabarrock probably believes it. His science knowledge is, like Tyler’s, on the Daily Mail level.

24 David H June 16, 2017 at 8:53 pm

Are you guys so clued in about science that you can rule out such a thing happening in the far future? I mean, yeah, it would be stupid to do it on Mars, but what if we could send tools flexible enough to make such a machine in another solar system? Then we could have human colonization without human travel. I happen to think that’s a pretty big deal. If humankind is to expand into the galaxy, this seems like the best way for it to happen.

25 Artimus June 17, 2017 at 2:09 am

I don’t think that we’re “clued in” on science. It’s more of a B.S. Meter. After years of predictions and breathless stories of an amazing future my B.S. meter has became finely calibrated. Of course I will gladly admit I could be wrong.

26 Believe it! June 17, 2017 at 8:13 am

I am not a biology expert either but look how often Tabarock (and to a somewhat lesser extent Cowen) get carried away and by into all the hype and BS about every new technology. Check out some of the Posts from a few years ago about how 3-D printing was on the cusp of completely revolutionizing manufacturing and making it so that people will be able to print up entire manufacutred products in their house therefore completely changing the industry. Is this really happening? Does this seem plausiable now? But Tabarrock bought into that BS hook-line-and-sink. Tabarrock is basically a fool who will fall for anything coming out of a corporate marketing department.

27 Artimus June 17, 2017 at 5:56 pm

I agree about Tabarrock. Maybe he’s different in person but in his postings on this blog he doesn’t come across as the sharpest tool in the shed.

28 Hazel Meade June 16, 2017 at 1:27 pm

It could print DNA and maybe an egg cell, but I don’t know how you get to a human baby without an environment for it to grow in. And if you could it would probably be mentally incapacitated since human fetuses have to learn to do all sorts of things inside the womb, which a printed baby would not have learned. Fetuses are already learning how to breathe and move their arms and ledges before they are born.

29 peri June 16, 2017 at 3:41 pm

This is what “universal” pre-K is for.

30 A clockwork orange June 17, 2017 at 2:22 am

If you’d believe it, indeed fetus’s are transmitted radio waves in the and other input from parents, and the thing is, some actually make decisions based on this, on how to act or how to perceive based on their parent’s inputs.

31 M June 17, 2017 at 4:10 am

Actually though, seems we dont know if any of that is “learning” per se, or it’s more like “fetuses make these movements as their brain develops”. E.g no learning feedback loop just random movements as an unnecessary consequence of a deterministic brain development. programme

32 Hadur June 16, 2017 at 1:31 pm

What kind of “ink” does this printer take? Office printers are super cheap and PDFs allow almost any kind of document to be easily printed, but printing is still very expensive because of the ink…

33 Hazel Meade June 16, 2017 at 3:45 pm

This is really the correct response to this pout.

34 Dzhaughn June 16, 2017 at 6:01 pm

It will use very very expensive ink from a future monopoly supplier. Failure to use the official cartridges could result in headache, nausea, global pandemic or death.

35 Larry June 16, 2017 at 1:55 pm

The most popular use will be to print drugs to bypass patents and the law.

36 The Other Jim June 16, 2017 at 5:47 pm

No – people will print their own Scarlett Johannsen.

37 The Engineer June 16, 2017 at 2:04 pm

Stupid and simplistic. There’s no way that you can “print” a molecule.

38 Dzhaughn June 16, 2017 at 6:06 pm

Stupid and simplistic back at ya! It seems totally possible. Just not practical. Amazon will offer fresh, made-to-order chemicals much more cheaply than you can produce at home.

39 Anonymous June 16, 2017 at 8:25 pm

Yes, there is.

(source: I work for a company that does exactly this)

40 Brian June 16, 2017 at 3:05 pm

Venter-hype. These capabilities have existed for decades. This simply seems to be a fully roboticized version. Actually, they have just taken standard robots and put them on the same cart with additional robots to hand off the plates. Lab robots are great. But you still need someone to fill up the reagent tanks, load the plates and other consumables, unclog the lines, troubleshoot the failures, and generally maintain the robot.

“If you can get those by email instead of getting them from the pharmacy, is conceptually going to be a very different world.”

You can already get all sorts of biologics from China and Russia with email and bitcoin. Now, whether you have the confidence to self-medicate with what they send you… But obviously, many do.

41 Thanatos Savehn June 16, 2017 at 3:52 pm

Another power-up for inequality. Existing medications could do a lot more good if instead of being formulated to treat e.g. hypertension in the average African American woman in the weight range 60kg-80kg, an algorithm could instead monitor a specific patient’s response throughout the day, note how her response changes (perhaps due to what she eats, how much she’s slept, what other meds she’s taken, the dally rhythm of her gut microbiome, etc.), re-estimate dose and thereafter print out what she needs; wash, rinse and repeat. Coupled with the sort of tech Apple wants to deploy with its watch, a printer like the one discussed would be a boon to the compliant patient. On the other hand it would only further widen the divide in outcomes between the sort of people living ordered lives (who are already so far ahead that they’ve generated their own bias category – compliance) and those who take their meds on the same schedule as their work habits.

The FDA currently prefers that patients be treated as the non-existent average patient be treated averagely for a variety of reasons. First, their scientists are as confused about statistical inference as most biomedical scientists. Second, clinicians tend to have an even worse grasp of statistics and tend to be horribly afflicted by confirmation bias (see e.g. Sir A. B. Hill’s rationale for randomizing and blinding) perhaps because of the status conferred upon them by society; and as a result clinicians who customize care tend to produce worse outcomes than those who just pass out whatever the PDR says in whatever dosage is suggested. Third, and this is just a suspicion, they (FDA) know that if if they ever admit to the unpredictable variability between patients and even within the same patient from day to day their claim to being able to “protect the public” from unsafe/ineffective drugs would be seen as empty and they’d lose a great portion of their power. (And if it happens don’t worry about it. When drug co. CEO’s check under their beds they’re not looking for the FDA nor even Chuck Norris – they’re looking for rapacious trial lawyers who’d love to crucify them in front of a St. Louis jury and for publicity seeking prosecutors who’d love to send them to prison for life because they sold untested/worthless drugs to unsuspecting citizens.) Finally, I’d be willing to bet that after decades of having racism, sexism, ageism, etc. hurled at them the last thing the FDA wants to sign off on is anything that renders even more stark the difference in fortunes of the Compliant Class and everybody else.

42 John Mansfield June 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm

A couple weeks ago my teen-aged son in our garage carved a AR-15 rifle receiver out of a block of aluminum, since I wouldn’t buy a rifle for him. He used some pattern jigs a friend lent him and my hand-held router. The receiver is the only rifle part that is legally controlled, and he bought all the rest as just so much uncontrolled hardware. He has fired several dozen rounds at the range since then. I’ve thought about this sort of simple poor man’s gunsmithing before when the notion has been put out that computers with printers will change everything. Maybe they will for people with no manual skill.

43 msgkings June 16, 2017 at 4:35 pm

People with little or no manual skill far outnumber people like your son.

44 John Mansfield June 16, 2017 at 4:58 pm

You are likely right even though the boy has no special experience or knowledge, just a childhood that includes saws, hammers, screwdrivers and occasionally repairing something or tinkering out ideas.

45 A clockwork orange June 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

Be careful little farbro, north Dakota is not a place you’d soon understand.

46 Zach June 16, 2017 at 6:13 pm

Like many young and technically skilled people, I think your son is paying insufficient attention to the legal side of things.

The receiver is the only rifle part that is legally controlled, and he bought all the rest as just so much uncontrolled hardware.

Another way to say this is: your son volunteered for the entire set of legal repercussions by machining a trivially simple part which isn’t that expensive to buy legally. He doesn’t think he’ll get in trouble for this, and he may not, but he has given the government a “throw me into jail free” card that can be used whenever they feel like it.

He would be much better off taking a hacksaw to the illegal part and buying a controlled part on the legitimate market.

47 Colonized by Convicts June 16, 2017 at 10:37 pm

I’m afraid I agree with Zach. While I applaud his ingenuity, The US legal system has a reputation for being merciless, jailing people at six times the rate of Australia — a nation where maybe 10% of the nation are the direct descendants of convicts.

48 Burin June 17, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Or not. The *sale* and/or *transfer* of receivers is legally controlled, but not the possession or creation (so long as defined as not for profit) in many states. You should read closely the local and federal laws, but often you can create your own receiver with very little legal fuss unless you then sell it, or live in a shit state like California or New York (I may need to remove California from my shit state list based on below, at least for this purpose):

From (not an authority by any means, but a good start):

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) mandated, among other things, that persons “engaged in the business” of dealing in firearms must be licensed by the federal government. (18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(21)(C).) This development made it illegal for an unlicensed person to make a firearm for sale or distribution. (18 U.S.C. § 923.) In addition, the law requires that firearms dealers must perform background checks on prospective purchasers and maintain records of all gun sales. (18 U.S.C § 922(t).)

However, there is nothing in the GCA that prohibits an individual from making a gun for his or her own personal use. A non-licensed person may make a firearm, provided it is not for sale and the maker is not otherwise prohibited from possessing firearms (such as a convicted felon). (18 U.S.C., Chapter 44; § 922 (d).) Federal law imposes none of the same restrictions on non-licensed possessors, and as a result, homemade guns need not be registered and the owner need not undergo a background check.

49 carlospln June 16, 2017 at 4:43 pm

More ‘Life at the Speed of Life’ heavy breathing from Craig Venter*?

That’s so 2013!

[The 1st chapter is actually a v good history of biology. Bin the rest]

(Remember when Craig Venter was going to ‘grow’ petroleum hydrocarbons in plastic bags from algae? Exxon pulled its funding)

50 Mark Thorson June 16, 2017 at 6:36 pm
51 Abelard Lindsey June 17, 2017 at 9:58 pm

I interviewed for a job with one of these algae biofuels start-ups (as an automation/control system engineer). The interview was held at the pilot production facility. It became clear during the interview they were having problems with their process and that the issues were more fundamental than scaling up issues.

52 Mark Thorson June 18, 2017 at 8:16 pm

There’s lots of problems. Any dense culture will be optically dense, so how do you get light to the algae? A dense culture looks like greenish India ink, and light only penetrates about a millimeter into it. The most common solution is to have turbulent flow, but that’s not a great solution. Any dense culture will absorb a lot of light, so it gets hot. How do you cool it? A very big problem is to keep grazing organisms and viruses out of the culture. Very large cultures are not sterilizable. The most effective solution is to choose an algal species that can thrive under conditions that suppress other species like a high salt culture medium, but that will impact productivity.

Those are some of the broad problems that need to be conquered before you do process optimization — gas input, gas output, harvesting cells, that kind of thing. Lots of people have had clever ideas, but it’s a long tough slog and up to the present everybody has eventually given up. This field somehow manages to draw in new participants every generation, and it would save a lot of wasted effort if these people would learn something about the history of this field before embarking on it. There have been serious projects going back to the 1940’s to harnass algae for food and fuel. It’s like a black hole that just sits there sucking up anybody who passes nearby.

53 Abelard Lindsey June 19, 2017 at 12:03 am

I think so too. I had my interview in fall of ’12, right near the end of the craze. The company I interviewed with (I forget the name) claimed that their genetically designer algae was able to overcome some of the problems you described. It didn’t, and the company folded about a year later.

Another problem is economics. Motor fuel is the least value added product you can make with this algae. It makes more sense to target the most value-added products and markets first (meds, cosmetics, etc), then move on to less value-added (but bigger overall market) products next, such as plastics. This was not the strategy any of these companies had. Hence, they disappeared without a trace.

PV solar has the same economic problems. With regards to value added per area of thin-film process technology, semiconductors and MEMS are the most value-added per area, followed by flat-panel displays and TV’s. Solar is the least value-added application for thin-film process technology in terms of value per area of finished product.

54 S June 16, 2017 at 4:50 pm

Techs like this are why privacy will have to be abolished in the near future. When a large number of individuals have the ability to resurrect smallpox or ebola, we’ll have to monitor literally everything they do or face near extinction.

55 Sigivald June 16, 2017 at 5:04 pm

we could email you insulin or a vaccine, and the device would produce it for you ready-to-go

Maybe a vaccine, given a while.

Insulin… well, how many molecules can it print a second?

Insulin is something diabetics need in considerable quantity, not a tiny-amount one-off.

56 randomDude June 16, 2017 at 5:48 pm

Markets in everything: Prions edition

57 Cjones1 June 16, 2017 at 6:05 pm

Oh Brave New World!
I’ll soon be able to print ou a mini Me or a full size model and use an EPOC BCI to program/transport my thought, memories, and more to a younger version…or many versions so I can be many places at once and get so many things done.
It seems so simple, but, from what I’ve heard of alien abductions, the aliens seem so backward. Either way, it solves the problem of surviving long journeys through space.

58 Dr Honeydew June 16, 2017 at 9:36 pm

Printing a baby is absolute nonsense. Clearly the best this technology can do is “program” a virus which rewrites the DNA of bacterium and then the bacterium print the baby.

59 A clockwork orange June 17, 2017 at 1:04 am

officially, by the lunar calendar, today, or if you like yesterday, wasis 23, 1776 616 (13)

60 Dr Honeydew June 17, 2017 at 1:33 am

A mystery! I will solve the puzzle of this code while my assistant, Beaker, performs the Ode to Joy:

61 Abelard Lindsey June 17, 2017 at 9:55 pm

This kind of device is based on microfluidics, which is the shinkage of all of the lab apparatus down to the size of individual cells or even large biomolecules. Microfludic devices are often made as MEMS devices using conventional semi-conductor process technology (usually on 200mm wafers). They can also be made using 3-D printing technology. The kind of device that Venter is talking about is the end-point of currrent technology trends in semiconductors, MEMS, 3-D printing (on the manufacturing side) and the relentless physical shrinkage of laboratory bio-tech processes and apparatus (on the demand side). Naturally, this kind of technology will be a boom for those of us into DIY biotech and, by extension, DIY medicine. The FDA would probably not approve of such technology for home use. People will still use it for this purpose anyways.

The rant about “inequality” is puzzling, especially when the context the rant was made in was the implication that people who have their act together on a personal level will benefit more than the screw offs. This is simply the natural order of things, not “inequality”. Why should those of us who have our act together have to forgo any kind of technology or other improvement in our lives simply to keep us on the same level as the screw ups?

62 Martin June 18, 2017 at 8:54 pm

+1. This exactly right.

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