Bio-Nanoprinting: Digitizing the Language of Life

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Bio-Nanoprinting: Digitizing the Language of Life

In the October 2012 issue of Trends, we discussed Nanoprinting and Bioprinting, the Next Frontier.  As we explained, 3-D printing technology creates solid three-dimensional objects individually from a program loaded onto a computer.  Layer after layer of material is deposited, building up the object being "printed."  Some experts predict that 3-D printing will grow into a $3 billion industry by 2018. 

Nanoprinting involves printing at the molecular scale to assemble larger molecules that constitute useful compounds as well as nanoscale machines; they have already demonstrated the ability to make simple drugs, like ibuprofen.  Bioprinting involves printing with cells and growth factors to create 3-D tissues and organs.  The even newer discipline of bio-nanoprinting merges these two technologies to create both new living organisms and new biological molecules.  The bio-nanoprinting process primarily involves writing proteins, as well as RNA and DNA using an alphabet of amino acids.

Leading the way into this bold new world of research is famed geneticist Craig Venter, who founded Celera Genomics and the Institute for Genomic Research.  Venter is best known for being one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome in 2000, and for creating the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010.  While bio-nanoprinting sounds like science fiction, Venter's track record suggests that it is entirely within the realm of possibility.

At the WiredHealth Conference in November 2012, Venter announced, "We found a way we can move proteins, viruses, and single human cells at the speed of light.  We can digitize biology, send it at the speed of light and reconfigure the biology at the other end."1

What this means is that scientists will one day be able to send a vaccine by e-mail.  In a world that is constantly at risk of a pandemic, it is critical to distribute a vaccine as soon as an outbreak occurs.  But precious weeks and even months can be lost as researchers formulate the vaccine, a drug company manufactures it, and distributors disperse it to pharmacies around the world.  During that time, the virus invariably spreads, rapidly increasing the number of people who are infected and making it exponentially more difficult and expensive to stop the outbreak.

With bio-nanoprinting, the researchers would simply send out an e-mail to doctors in any location where the virus poses a threat.  Venter has figured out how to convert bio-molecules into digital code that can be read by "biological printers" in doctors' offices and medical clinics...

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