The Dawn of the Bio-Entrepreneur Era

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The Dawn of the Bio-Entrepreneur Era

It reads like the beginning of a Michael Crichton novel:  "Why struggle with cloning when we can build genes to your specifications?" says the ad for a company called Genewiz. 

It goes on:  "Genewiz can synthesize codon-optimized cDNA, gene variants, artificially designed DNA, or any other sequence for your research.  Simply provide a nucleotide or amino acid sequence, and we will ship your desired gene cloned into your choice of plasmid."

But it's not science fiction.  Genewiz is a real company selling the components of artificial life.  Investors are waiting for the next big technological breakthrough.  Synthetic biology may be it. 

Even though scientists have known the structure of DNA since 1953 and they've been splicing genes since 1974, synthetic biology is becoming a practical reality only now because of the dramatic progress that has taken place in gene sequencing and gene synthesis. 

  • Gene sequencing is the process of reading the sequence of base-pairs from a sample of DNA and storing it in a computer. 
  • Gene synthesis involves creating new DNA, typically based on computer-generated instructions. 

These two, largely mechanical steps rely primarily on information technology and microfluidics.  Between them lies the real value-added in synthetic biology:  creating a new and improved genetic sequence which, when synthesized and inserted into an organism, will deliver better, faster, and cheaper results than the alternatives.  Automating the sequencing and synthesis steps has dramatically lowered
economic barriers to entering this new industry.

To get an idea of how fast things are changing, consider that the price-performance of gene sequencing machines has increased by a factor of 100 million over the past 25 years.  Today, companies like Illumina and the 454 Technologies division of Roche are developing machines that are cutting the cost of sequencing a genome roughly in half every 11 months.  This is putting in place the kind of platform needed for tomorrow's bio-entrepreneurs to thrive. 

Obviously, it takes a fairly well-funded laboratory to buy a new $500,000 gene sequencer from a manufacturer.  Even buying refurbished machines from a company like Blue Lion Bio and hiring the technicians to operate them is a hefty investment for an entrepreneur without serious venture capital. 

However, anyone with a budget of $25,000 to $30,000 can have a bacterial genome sequenced and synthesized with modifications by a company like Genewiz or Eurofins MWG Operon, ready to insert in a new host cell...

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