The Fabulous World of Bio-Fabs Arrives

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The Fabulous World of Bio-Fabs Arrives

Malaria kills 853,000 children under the age of five every year. Some 3.2 billion people in 107 countries are potentially at risk for catching malaria. Up to 500 million people contract the disease every year, and more than a million deaths are directly caused by it.

This is made even more tragic by the fact that there is a cure for malaria. It’s called artemisinin and is a natural compound found in the sweet wormwood tree in northern China.1 It completely eliminates the parasite from the body. So why isn’t it being distributed worldwide?

The answer is that the tree doesn’t make enough artemisinin to extract it on an industrial scale. Before even a dent could be made in the treatment doses needed, all the sweet wormwood trees would vanish from the earth.

You might suggest that the compound be synthesized, and that would be a good idea — except for one thing: To do that requires copying the collection of genes, known as the genetic pathway, that makes artemisinin in the tree. Those genes, once copied, would have to be inserted into a suitable organism that could grow the compound, such as yeast cells.

If that sounds like genetic engineering, it is. Yet despite the fact that we’ve had the basic techniques of genetic engineering mastered for several decades now, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

For one thing, the genetic pathway for producing artemisinin consists of nine genes. Each gene has 1,500 DNA bases on average. If scientists wanted to create an artificial way of making the drug, they’d have to try out various versions of the pathway and discover one that would make more of it than the tree does — preferably lots more. That means assembling different combinations of nine genes with 1,500 bases each, or roughly 13,000 bases for every new version of the complete pathway.

In addition, they’d want to make variations of each gene in the pathway to fine-tune the production for peak efficiency. Making just two versions of each gene would require 512 constructs, or six million nucleotide bases. The task of testing genetic pathways rapidly becomes overwhelming using today’s manual techniques for synthesizing DNA.

In the 1980s, a scientist at the University of Colorado developed a way to synthesize DNA. DNA is made up of nucleotides, which contain the so-called bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Each base has a different level of attraction to the others, and the researcher used that property to assemble the DNA. The technique is still in use.

First a nucleotide is attached to a styrene bead floating in liquid...

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