EDINBURGH, UK — German microarray firm Febit has long been focused on growing the market for its biochip-based applications like miRNA analysis. Now the array firm is looking to add so-called "biobricks" — or synthetic biology — to its portfolio via a wholly owned subsidiary.
Peer Stähler, Febit's vice-president and chief scientific officer, told BioArray News that the company recently spun out Febit Synbio, a subsidiary that will solely focus on commercializing a new synthetic biology application, also called Synbio, which runs on its flagship Geniom platform.
The company sees a market opportunity for its platform in the synthetic biology market, which is currently dominated by genes synthesized on columns and sold in tubes. Febit claims that its Geniom-based approach can synthesize genes in higher throughput and at lower costs than current methods.
Stähler said that the company has several pilot customers for the platform and that Febit plans “general availability towards the end of this year." He added that the firm's early-access customers include one biotech company and a few academic researchers, but he declined to name the users. Stähler spoke to BioArray News during Select Biosciences' Advances in Microarray Technology conference held here last week.
By entering the synthetic biology market, Febit will compete against firms positioned outside the traditional microarray sector, such as US firms Blue Heron and Codon Devices.
Febit already enables customers to synthesize their own chips using its Geniom One instrument. Now the company is adding DNA synthesis capability to the platform. The Synbio application uses biochip-derived oligonucleotides to produce synthetic genes, gene clusters, or artificial chromosomes or to prepare pools of individual "biobricks," Stähler said.
He said that the Synbio application has been in development since the inception of Febit's predecessor company Febit Biotech in 1999, but the company decided to move more aggressively into the market now because it sees an opportunity in its ability to reduce costs. For pilot customers, it costs $1 per base pair to synthesize genes, with average orders netting $1,000 for the company, Stähler explained. The hope is to reduce that cost further in coming months to give Febit a leg up in a market where its technology is the newcomer.
"The idea is to deliver it a year from now at $0.10 per base pair, which will make it much cheaper than synthesizing genes on columns," Stähler said.
Other synthetic biology firms rely on a number of different methods. Blue Heron, for example, uses its GeneMaker tool to assemble double-stranded oligos into full-length genes inside a column on a solid support matrix. It does not disclose pricing on its website. Codon uses its BioFab tool to construct genes that it sells at between $0.69 and $0.99 per base pair depending on the order -- prices that currently rival Febit's, but won't for long should the company lower its price to $0.10 per base pair as planned.
Febit’s decision to join the synthetic biology market is in keeping with its mantra of being an innovative array company.
"The ideal is to deliver it a year from now at $ 0.10 per base pair, which will make it much cheaper than synthesizing genes on columns."
“Our focus is not the typical microarray user,” Stefan Matysiak, Febit’s vice president and general manager, told BioArray News last year. “We want to always be flexible and always be the first to have a probe designed for a specific application. These are the people we work with, people who have creative and visionary ideas for microarrays” (see BAN 3/13/2007).
But with its vision this time come ethical questions about synthetic biology and the concept of creating life from scratch in general. For example, as a January report on synthetic biology by Canadian non-governmental organization the ETC Group points out, “concerns about [synthetic biology]’s bioweaponry potential are not limited to the construction or reconstruction of virulent microorganisms.”
“The proliferation of [synthetic biology] techniques means that the threat of bioterror ... is constantly evolving, challenging the abilities of the international Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and civil society weapons watchdogs to monitor and prevent biowarfare,” the publication warns. The full report can be accessed here.
Fully aware of the implications of the space, Stähler said that Febit is partnering with other German firms that play in the synthetic bio arena through an organization called the Industrial Group on Synthetic Biology.
“This is a field that requires some guidelines and ethics,” Stähler said last week. “What we have in mind is to discuss the need for guidelines and create rules.” For example, Stähler said that companies in the space could compile lists of “bad” genes in order to qualify customers’ orders prior to synthesis.
“You want to make sure that you are not sending out something that you don’t want to take responsibility for,” he said. Febit is also interested in working with other partners in developing a strategy that will enable the safe development of the synthetic biology market, according to Stähler.