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Gen9 Announces Lower-Cost DNA Synthesis, Seeks Partners for Access Program


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – DNA synthesis firm Gen9 is looking test drive the newest generation of its BioFab platform, and to do so it needs lots of researchers who themselves need lots of DNA constructs.

"Underline lots," Gen9 VP of R&D and Operations Devin Leake told GenomeWeb. BioFab is designed to operate at high throughput, which allows the company to offer DNA at a lower per-base price than ever before. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Gen9 is looking for scientists interested in ordering hundreds of constructs at a time, which is possible through the firm's online portal. "To get people to do that, it can't be at 50 cents a base pair," Leake said. "It has to be less than that."

Last week, Gen9 announced that it can produce DNA constructs up to 10,000 base pairs long for as low as $.03 per base pair, and it's looking for partners to help the manufacturing process reach full capacity.

Leake said the firm was looking to begin long-term partnerships with researchers, who would order continually throughout the year. "BioFab is hungry. It operates well when it has a lot of DNA passing through it."

The program will be run as part of Gen9's Multiplex Access Partnership program, and is already up and running.

The firm is hoping that by perfecting this iteration of its DNA manufacturing technology, it will help drive the adoption of synthetic biology in many corners of the life sciences.

"Our technology makes possible the validation of new, more aggressive scientific approaches focused on improved workflow efficiencies and parallel testing," Leake said. "Enabled by the cost and quality profile of long DNA constructs, researchers will push the envelope, testing double or triple the number of hypotheses in real time to more quickly develop an optimized enzyme or engineer a pathway for sustainable chemical manufacturing."

It's not just basic research and pharmaceuticals that could benefit. The ability to create specialty chemicals such as flavors, fragrances, materials, and compounds for bioremediation could explode with cheaper access to synthetic DNA.

Leake said the firm sees itself as helping foment a synthetic biology revolution. "It's what continues to drive us," he said, and is what the company's founders — Harvard University's George Church, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Joe Jacobson, and Stanford University's Drew Endy — wanted.

To succeed in the area of DNA synthesis, Gen9 will have to jostle for position with several other companies. Agilent offers DNA synthesis but has invested more than $21 million in Gen9. Thermo Fisher Scientific's GeneArt gene synthesis is another available option. And in recent years, Twist Bioscience and Synthomics have emerged as competitors in Gen9's niche area of high-throughput synthesis marketed towards those practicing synthetic biology.

Though some firms like Molecular Assemblies are exploring alternative chemistries, Gen9 and many others are using the well-established phosphoramidite synthesis chemistry. What makes Gen9 unique is its ability to make DNA on glass microarray chips, Leake said. A novel error correction technology based on work done by Jacobson and Church also helps the process, allowing better accuracy for longer pieces of DNA. 

"A lot of [other companies] struggle with longer constructs," Leake said. "What's more unique is our ability to build 10,000 base-pair constructs at high throughput. Our ability to have an industrialized process makes it routine to do 10,000 base pairs."

Since it began making DNA in 2012, Gen9 has both increased the lengths of DNA it can make and has increased efficiency: in 2012 it was only 1,000 base pairs and in 2013 it was 3,000. The "next-generation" of the firm's BioFab platform is less of a particular advance in concept but rather a harmonization of all the different parts so that it fulfills the promise of high-throughput DNA synthesis.

The firm spent "a significant amount of effort" to improve the software it uses to control automation, Leake said. It has also recently introduced multiplexing, which reduces both waste and cost.

BioFab's latest capabilities are increased by its ability to handle high-throughput logistics. Leake likened it to throwing a sports event. If each DNA construct were a sports fan, Gen9 is "moving to a point where we are throwing a Super Bowl every week."

"Could you run it for one person? Sure. But would you? It's just more expensive. It's built to carry a lot of people," he said. "What we're looking for are people that are interested in synthesizing millions of base pairs. There are people that want to do that."

Many of those people have adopted the synthetic biology credo of "design, build, test." It's a positive feedback loop Gen9 wants to stoke: by offering high-throughput DNA synthesis, it could grow the number of outfits that will demand even more amounts of DNA.

"If DNA were cheap enough, could you do 10 experiments at once and arrive at your answers faster? That's the new methodology," Leake said.