Imagine a deadly virus emerging in a part of the world without the resources for vaccine development. Now imagine if researchers on the other side of the world could send local medics an effective vaccine by email.
Dan Gibson and Craig Venter of Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, California, started to imagine such a scenario shortly after an avian flu outbreak in China in 2013. The company had just developed a prototype DNA synthesizer (the BioXp 3200, now commercially available) that could produce DNA molecules from just a digital sequence.
“The authors paint this future where one might be able to, in a completely digital and automated fashion, go from DNA sequence to functional output,” says Michael Jewett, a chemical and biological engineer at Northwestern University who was not involved in the research. “Granted the prototype is a little bulky . . . but the idea that you could connect all these pieces together without human intervention is exciting.”