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Research Suggests Relationship Between Computer Chips and Gene Synthesis

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New research out of the University of Cincinnati suggests that synthetic life could be created in the near future based on a comparison with the evolution of computer chips. 

Andrew Steckl, a professor at the university and an Ohio Eminent Scholar, is confident that major advancements in gene synthesis could soon bring wide scale gene manufacturing. Working with his student Joseph Riolo, the pair used the history of microchip development and large scale computer software platforms to create a predictive model. This model was then used to understand synthetic biology.

Understanding Synthetic Biology

“No analogy is perfect. DNA doesn’t meet certain definitions of digital code,” Riolo said. “But there are a lot of ways the genome and software code are comparable.”

The UC study demonstrated that synthetic biology has the potential to be “the next epochal technological human advancement following microelectronics and the internet.”

There are many potential applications for this, such as the creation of new biofuels to develop medical treatments. 

According to Steckl, we can use computer chip development as a guide to inferring the speed and costs of producing synthetic life and the trajectory it might follow.

The published article focuses on the comparison and similarities between biological and digital coding languages in terms of alphabet, words, and sentences. With that said, the authors say that DNA coding is only part of a complex story of genes. 

Steckl is a distinguished professor who holds joint appointments in electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, and materials engineering in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“There are all kinds of caveats, but we need a zero-order comparison to start down this road,” said Steckl. “Can we compare the complexity of programming a fighter plane or Mars rover to the complexity associated with creating a genome of a bacterium? Are they of the same order or are they significantly more complicated?

“Either biological organisms are way more complicated and represent the most complicated ‘programming' that has ever been done — so there's no way you can duplicate it artificially — or perhaps they're of the same order as creating the coding for an F-35 fighter plane or a luxury car, so maybe it is possible.”

Synthesizing Artificial Human Genomes

According to the study, the price of editing genes and synthesizing genomes has roughly halved every two years since 2010, similar to Moore’s Law. 

“This would mean that synthesizing an artificial human genome could cost approximately $1 million dollars and simpler applications like a custom bacterium could be synthesized for as little as $4,000,” the authors said.

“This combination of surmountable complexity and moderate cost justifies the academic enthusiasm for synthetic biology and will continue to inspire interest in the rules of life.”

Steckl says that bio-engineering could become crucial to nearly every industry and science.

“I see a correlation between how computing has evolved as a discipline. Now you see heavy-duty computing in every science discipline,” Steckl said. “I see something similar happening in the world of biology and bio-engineering. Biology is everywhere. It will be interesting to see how these things evolve.”

As for the creation of artificial life, the authors say it is something that carries enormous responsibility. 

“It's not something to be taken lightly,” Steckl said. “It's not as simple as we should do it because we can do it. One should also consider the philosophical or even religious implications.”

Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.