Imagine a day when you could engineer synthetic micro-organisms to generate sustainable fuel, or destroy cancer cells with just the tap of a mouse. Well, some of the world’s most brilliant minds are studying a new field, synthetic biology, which could do just that. Synthetic biology is the hybrid of biology and engineering and the field’s common goal is both to create new biological organisms and systems not found in nature, and also to re-design existing biological systems.
Genome Compiler, an American-Israeli startup, is putting synthetic biology in the hands of the masses. Their new application allows users to custom design, and then order, genetic models and sequences. As CEO and founder Omri Amirav-Drory says, it’s “do it yourself” biology.
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Genome Compiler was incorporated in August of 2011, and is currently headquartered in California, with R&D center in Israel. In an interview with NoCamels, CEO Drory explains: “After years of research in the field of synthetic biology I was frustrated with the tools available.” Drory was also inspired by work done at the JCVI Institute in La Jolla, California, where scientists were able to construct a 1 million-letter genome and create a new organism from synthetic DNA.
Genome Compiler’s application is free to download, and can be used on both Macs and PCs. Once the application is running, a material box (a library of genetic designs and genomes) appears. Users can then start to design genes, bacteria, and chromosomes by inputting codes or directly importing genetic sequences from the internet. The application is directly connected to the GenBank website, the largest DNA repository hosted by the American National Institute of Health.
Once finished, all users have to do is click save, and then proceed to the order page.
Creating life on your computer
“We turn computer designs into physical DNA molecules with the click of a button,” says Drory. Genome Complier works with suppliers (DNA synthesis companies that make DNA), and send users their custom designed product. Drory says most of his customers design plasmids, a DNA molecule that can replicate independently of the chromosomal DNA, for the purpose of heterologous expression, or placing that gene in a host organism that does not genetically (naturally) have that gene or gene fragment. The user will then receive in their order, a vial of 4 micrograms of freeze-dried DNA, they can use to run their experiments. “We are like the Amazon for DNA,” says Drory. For researchers and students in the field of synthetic biology, Genome Compiler is a new way to have their creations to come to life.
To Drory, living things and computers can be thought about in similar terms. “Biology is information technology. Computers understand 1 and 0, the binary code. Biology is just like this, but its machine code is DNA (nucleotide bases A,C,G and T). The programs of biology are genomes and chromosomes. Every living thing is just a program.”
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The company provides products to students, researchers and scientists at universities and research centers around the world. The majority of the company’s current users are in te US and Israel, at some of the best research institutions including Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Tel Aviv University and Technion. Genome Compiler also collaborates with NASA on synthetic biology initiatives at the Ames Campus in California.
Genome Compiler offers these products to customers at the same price as if they were to order directly through DNA synthesis companies. It costs between $0.35-$0.85 per genetic letter. As Drory explains, this price has been “going down every year for last 15 years.” Genes are plus or minus 1000 letters, small viruses are between 10,000-100,000 letters, bacterial genomes between 580- 10 million letters, and chromosomes (from yeast to humans) can range from 10 million to billions of letters.
Next January, Genome Compiler plans include an “online drop box” for sharing capabilities between users.
The company is also looking to boost its marketing efforts, and plans to do so with its own genetic project. The company plans to do a kickstarter for a project in which sliced genes of bioluminescence of organisms like fireflies or anglerfish are used to create glowing plants. “We want to show that you can use a community to fund a genetic project. There are already several community labs in places like NYC and Silicon Valley where you can rent lab space.” says Drory.
Funded by 3D design veteran company Autodesk
There are other companies that provide services similar to Genome Compiler, like DNA 2.0, a genetic synthesis company, or startup Symbiota. So far however, Genome Compiler seems to be an industry leader. Several thousand people have downloaded the Genome Compiler application, and the company has made thousands of dollars in revenue. The company has raised more than $3 million in capital, $2 million of which is from Autodesk, a $10 billion design software company. The remaining $1 million was raised from Angel investment. “We have the money, and strong industry and academic connections,” reports Drory.
Drory has a PhD from Tel Aviv University, and completed his Post-doc at Stanford. He lives in Israel, along with co-founders Nir Ben-Moshe, Yogev Debbi and Roy Nevo. “We have to realize that the way our civilization works is by using natural resource to produce what is around us. This is unsustainable. We can use synthetic biology to change this.”
Photo by Christoph Bock (Max Planck Institute for Informatics)