Democratize Creation – Biohackers Design and Print DNA

In the summer of 2013, I backed a Kickstarter project to create plants that glow in the dark, using genomic design software and synthetic biology. The project was successfully funded, and the developers founded the company Glowing Plant, which is working to deliver. The company was backed by synthetic biology startup Cambrian Genomics, which wants to “democratize creation” and let biohackers everywhere design and print the DNA of new life forms, SFGate reports.

Also read: Synthetic Biology: Artificial Cells Built From Silicon

The Glowing Plant Kickstarter project, described by Peter Diamandis as “the coolest Kickstarter campaign ever,” asked for $65,000 and received more than $480,000 from thousands of supporters. It’s worth noting that the anti-technology organization ETC Group launched a “Kickstopper” to raise funds to “stop synthetic biology pollution,” but their project only received little more than $2,000 of the $20,000 goal.

Custom Printed DNA Shipped as Powder That Customers Put Inside the Cells of an Organism

Glowing PlantFounder Austen Heinz told SFGate that Cambrian Genomics will let customers tinker with the genetic codes of plants and animals and even design new creatures on a computer. Then, Cambrian Genomics, will print that DNA quickly, accurately and cheaply.

“Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game [and] creates a whole new world. [It] is the most powerful technology humans have ever created. Hydrogen bombs can destroy whole planets, but this is a technology that can create planets. This is the greatest human achievement of all time – the ability to read and write life, because that’s who we are.”

Cambrian Genomics currently offers DNA printing services to large companies like Roche and GlaxoSmithKline. The company raised $10 million from more than 120 investors, including Peter Thiel’s venture firm Founders Fund. Venture capitalist Timothy Draper said:

I love Cambrian. The company is literally printing life. Can’t wait to see all the great things that come of it.

Print DNADNA is made up of four chemicals represented by the letters A, C, T and G. When Cambrian receives an order for specific genes, it adds DNA chemicals millions of times onto tiny beads that are then layered onto a glass slide. A machine assigns a color to each DNA chemical. The next step is the key one: A laser programmed to analyze the color combinations ignores the erroneous strands and “prints” the correct ones by pushing them apart from the rest. The final product arrives on a small plastic plate as a powder that customers put inside the cells of an organism.

At the time of the successful Kickstarter and unsuccessful Kickstopper, synthetic biology expert Andrew Hessel said:

Genetic engineering has moved from large groups into the hands of individuals and small groups, the same dynamics as we see with many other technologies, including computers. [W]ithout question, synthetic biology is a powerful technology. I maintain that it’s the most powerful technology we’ve ever created.

Heinz said about the Glowing Plant project:

DNA laser printing will change life as we know it, starting with glowing plants.

Images from Glowing Plant, Cambrian Genomics and Shutterstock.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.