March 30, 2015

The Brave New World of DNA Synthesis

DNA synthesis
The DNA double helix. (Image: Flickr/Victor Svensson)

Over the last several decades, DNA – the genetic material of life as we know it – has completed a remarkable scientific cycle. In 1953, it was a mysterious blur on an X-ray diffractogram. By the 1970s, it was possible to determine the sequence of short nucleotide chains. And now, a scientist can produce her own genetic code of choice with the click of a mouse.

What happens after the mouse click, after an order for a chain of DNA is sent, is an impressive series of events that represents one of the most mature, yet dynamic, sectors of the biotech industry. DNA synthesis companies range from scrappy start-ups to Cambridge-area behemoths, each touting a distinct set of tools that carves out a slice of the ever increasing pie.

For many groups, the human genome project – the $3 billion effort funded by the U.S. government – was an important launching point that both advanced DNA sequencing and synthesis technology and prompted important questions worthy of further scientific investigation. “We are a direct beneficiary of all the sequencing information that came out of the Project,” says Kevin Munnelly, CEO of Gen9, “and it’s all going to impact synthetic biology and our ability to write DNA.” Jerry Steele, the Director of Marketing for IDT, recalls that “the thing that really helped us take off was synthesizing the oligos for the human genome project. 10 or 15 years ago, it cost a few dollars per base to make oligos,” he recalls, “and now we’re down to a few cents.”

Several different industries are reaping the benefits, from agriculture to clean-tech to pharmaceuticals. Emily Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience, thinks the biochemical arms race between pathogens and pharmaceutical companies is worse than most people realize. With increasing antibiotic resistance and a diminished rate of new antibiotic discovery, “we’re going back to an era of pre-penicillin,” Leproust maintains, “and it will be a shock to people.” With affordable methods to produce alternative genes, regulatory structures, or even entire metabolic pathways now available, the range of possible products has grown exponentially. “Now we can make new candidates and new antibiotics that will enable us to start fighting back.”

But just because scientists can make DNA doesn’t mean they always know precisely what those chains of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs are up to. That quest to understand the nature of life’s instructions is driving much of the DNA being produced for scientific research. After all, with a 3.5 billion year head-start, life has optimized its activities in ways that we’re still just beginning to appreciate, and changes to these finely tuned processes are much more likely to have a deleterious effect than a beneficial one.

Biotech has promised great things for years, since DNA sequencing went mainstream. And while many believe those promises have gone largely unfulfilled, a renewed sense of potential is growing based on DNA synthesis technologies. It’s a shift from a purely observational mode of interaction with the code of life (DNA sequencing) to active tinkering and experimentation (DNA synthesis). “For decades, we’ve just been getting a sense of the potential that sequencing can give us,” says Munnelly. “But the ability to write good, high-quality DNA constructs represents the future of medicine and the future of science.”

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis that also appears on Wired.com

Read the other articles from this series: