The field of synthetic biology is seeing major interest in the areas of DNA synthesis and automation. I’m not talking about liquid handling stations, but complex automated workstations that assemble genetic constructs, transform microbes, perform high throughput experiments, automated analysis, all enabled with sophisticated visualization tools. The vision is that experiments can be first designed, performed by workstations that are controlled by computers through the cloud, and analyzed, all within the span of a few days. Everything can be done from your computer, which brings great promise of eliminating the grunt work typically associated with molecular biology. We still hear the old rumours of colleagues who used to prepare their own enzymes for PCR. Pretty soon, we will be laughing at those who still show up to the lab to operate PCR machines, running DNA and protein gels.
Several interesting companies are seeking to occupy this space. Emerald Cloud Labs is one company that offers the whole package. The list of possible experiments that can actually be performed is quite impressive, and includes DNA/RNA synthesis, microscopy, cell culture, and analytical methods. The long list of experimental options can be seen here, and the company vision can be seen here. One of first companies on the automated platform biofoundry scene is Gingko Bioworks. They recently partnered with DNA synthesis company Twist Biosciences, in a landmark deal where Gingko purchased 100 million base pairs of synthetic DNA, which is equivalent to 10% of the current DNA synthesis capacity worldwide. This combined ability to synthesize DNA fast and cheap, coupled to the bioworks automation, should result in the creation of an impressive number of new products. In their pipeline of partners, they are working on engineered organisms to produce sweeteners, fragrances, cosmetics and flavors. They also expect to contribute to designing microbes that consume CO2 and convert it to biofuels, or produce new probiotics, and also to identify new medicinal compounds from screening high throughput drug libraries and natural compounds.
Personally, I find these advances awe inspiring. I’ve always been attracted to applied microbiology research. These projects will require greater efforts in the design stage, but the pace of discovery will come fast and furious. As someone now working for a distance education university, the ability to contract out complicated, time consuming experiments is a breath of fresh air. I think we are going to see a new structure to budget sections of grants, where much of the work is a single line item contracted out to a third party. Welcome to the future!