On Fabs and DNA hacking

I have a tendency to be too limited in my vision. Back before the human genome was sequenced, I really couldn’t see the point of it. And more recently, as we’ve begun to contemplate the ease with which genome synthesis can be carried out, I again sometimes fail to see the importance. My limitations primarily have to do with having to deal with the nitty gritty of technologies that are right in front of my eyes, and therefore failing to step back and see what the future might bring. It’s easy to dream, and hard to do.

That said, we may actually be modestly ahead of the curve for a change. Not much, but a little. Recently, we’ve set up a DNA Fab at the Applied Research Labs of the University of Texas at Austin. From my vantage, it’s a remarkable facility, capable of the de novo synthesis of upwards of 100x 1 kb genes / week. Now, this is nothing compared to what many companies can do, but for our little operation it’s quite an achievement. We’ve even managed to develop some relatively novel protocols for DNA synthesis, and have developed a pretty decent ‘how to’ manual for setting up a Fab. For right now, it’s incredibly useful for our projects that center on antibody development, biosensor design, and synthetic biology in general. That said, it will likely soon be displaced by chip-based synthesis protocols.

But that raises the interesting question of who owns DNA synthesis. Back in the day, every lab had a DNA synthesizer. My lab started with a one-port machine that I miss dearly, in part because we could change out any piece of the plumbing on a moment’s notice. Then, DNA synthesis migrated to core facilities, which typically had one or more four-port machines. And then economies of scale drove the business into companies, and all of the old synthesizers slowly faded away. It’s rare now that you find a lab that does even a little of its own synthesis.

Of course, anyone who wants to do their own DNA synthesis can still buy such machines, especially used ones. And in that regard, it’s not like ‘private’ DNA synthesis is ever going away. But the opportunities for individuals to make their own DNA, especially at the scales that we’re now operating at, are few and far between. It is unlikely that we will ever face a situation wherein an individual can synthesize a virus without some commercial entity being cognizant of the oligonucleotides that are being ordered. The fantasies of the DIY crowd will pretty much always be subject to some sort of oversight. This is, in my opinion, a good thing. Still, it’s a little weird to think that DNA and biology have been commoditized to the point where hacking is a thing of the past before it even gets off the ground.


- originally posted on Thursday, July 1st, 2010