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Blue Heron to Supply Genes to Venter s New Synthetic Genomics Company

NEW YORK, July 7 (GenomeWeb News) - Blue Heron Biotechnology will build and supply genes to Craig Venter's new synthetic biology company, according to people familiar with the arrangement.


As GenomeWeb News reported last week, Venter's start-up, Synthetic Genomics, has set out to create a "minimal genome" that may eventually be genetically manipulated to perform specific industrial tasks.


Asked if Synthetic Genomics is a Blue Heron customer, Molly Hoult, Blue Heron's senior vice president for sales, marketing, and business development, declined to comment, saying the company works under confidentiality agreements and does not disclose details about customers it may or may not have. A spokesperson for Synthetic Genomics declined to comment.


Blue Heron, based in Bothell, Wash., sells sequence-verified full-length cloned genes. The company's customers, including its synthetic biology clientele, order the genes they'd like and specify into which vector they should be cloned, either into publicly available vectors or into customers' own vectors, according to Hoult.


Once the genes are assembled, Blue Heron ships the purified plasma DNA and a bacterial strain containing the plasmid. Hoult said it takes "on average" between two and four weeks to assemble and ship its genes, depending on its length. She said the biggest gene Blue Heron has assembled was between 20-25 kb.


The bacterium Venter's company plans to synthesize, Mycoplasma genitalium, has approximately 580 kb of DNA encoding 517 genes.


"That's not to say (20-25 kb) is the maximum we can put together," said Hoult. "There are some biological limits as you get to larger pieces. Companies that are trying to do a whole genome ... have strategies in mind to avoid those" limits.


Though Synthetic Genomics is still developing the technology on which its research and development will be based, Venter has said one potential application is in the production of alternate energy sources.


The company, based in Rockville, Md., builds on the success Venter and colleagues had two years ago when they synthesized a genome to create the bacteriophage phiX174. Though other researchers managed to build an organism from a genome before Venter -- in 2002, a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook used off-the-shelf oligos to create poliovirus -- Venter founded the new company to create the first man-made bacterium.


Synthetic Genomics is sponsoring and working with researchers from Venter's nonprofit group, the J. Craig Venter Institute, "to identify the minimum set of genes necessary for an organism to survive in a controlled environment," according to the company's website.


Once that has been accomplished, Synthetic Genomics will attempt to synthesize the genome, "add the desired biological capabilities," and insert it into an environment "that allows metabolic activity and replication -- the creation of a synthetic cell," the company said.


After designing and producing a synthetic chromosome -- M. genitalium has just one -- the team plans to develop a proof of concept in either of two bio-energy applications: hydrogen or ethanol.


Though the technology is still being developed, what is well-known is the way Venter's team was able to create the bacteriophage phiX174. As GenomeWeb News  reported in 2003, researchers at what was at the time known as the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives used short oligonucleotides and adapted PCR into a technique called polymerase cycle assembly, or PCA, to build this genome in 14 days. Like PCR, PCA produces double-stranded gene sequences from single-stranded templates.


Researchers on that study included Ham Smith, who is now executive vice president and co-chief scientific officer at Synthetic Genomics, and Clyde Hutchison, of the Universityof North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who is president of the company's scientific advisory board. Juan Enriquez, founding director of HarvardBusinessSchool's Life Sciences Project, is president.


At a 2003 press conference announcing results from that research, Venter stressed that his team would not commercialize PCA, nor would he file patents on it. "We'd rather wait till the next stage when there's a clear-cut application: for instance if we have something that produces hydrogen that might hold some value."

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