To ensure that future scientists viewing a synthetic bacterium will not confuse it for something naturally occurring, Dr. Venter and his team created a microscopic watermark. Marks included the institute’s URL, the names of the scientists involved in the project, and three inspiring quotes. Including a quote from the Irish writer James Joyce required copyright permission from his estate, and another saying from American physicist Richard Feynman was originally misquoted. The correct Feynman quote imprinted on the synthetic bacterium encapsulates the spirit of discovery in genomic research: “What I cannot create, I do not understand,” said Dr. Venter.
Future genomic research must target the 50 or so genes whose exact functions are still unknown, said Dr. Venter. One potential application of genomic research is creating synthetic DNA that can correct disease-causing errors in cells, and then transplanting those engineered cells back into the body, he noted.
Another potential application is in the area of vaccine development, Dr. Venter said. Currently, vaccines for deadly viruses, like influenza, must be manufactured and then shipped to vaccination sites worldwide. Instead, researchers at the Venter Institute are sequencing new, emerging flu viruses so vaccinations could be created closer to where they are needed, something Dr. Venter calls “biological teleportation.” To respond to a global flu pandemic, “we could send a new vaccine around the world in seconds,” he said. “Our ultimate solution is a digital, biological converter attached to your computer.”
Susan Bernstein is a writer based in Atlanta.