Synthetic biology is still in its infancy and there are still a lot of questions to be worked out. Recent headlines have included the patenting of genes and the announcement by Kickstarter to ban modified organisms as rewards. I asked expert Joel Cherry, President of R&D at Amyris, about the most interesting questions in synthetic biology today.
Should you be allowed to patent genes?
“No I don’t think you should be able to patent a naturally occurring sequence. Isolation is not sufficient. If you’ve done a significant manipulation then it’s OK. I don’t know if I’d have answered the question the same way 15 years ago, but these days pulling a gene out is trivial with current sequencing technology, we order genes every day. It’s as easy as picking up a cylinder and getting on your computer.”
Are we seeing a growing trend in people ordering their DNA from external sources?
“Absolutely! It’s the future. We’ve invested a significant amount of energy and time in methods to make synthetic genes, to stitch pieces of DNA together, to make genes and expression constructs and entire pathways. It’s not hard to imagine a time when all that happens on a DNA synthesizer and you really don’t have to do any manipulation other than to figure out how to insert it into an organism in the right place, under the right control mechanism.”
What role will software play in the design process?
“With the technology we’ve already built, we can design a series of significant engineering steps where you can introduce novel pathways from a plant into yeast and never touch the DNA. You can do it entirely through a computer, with a series of automation steps to a final result. I think that’s just the beginning of what our design capabilities are going to be in the future.”
How will this affect the field?
“The coming years are going to see a growing democratization of science, in molecular biology in particular. We always wanted to build something that could replace the need for scientists to go into the lab, to hand build DNA constructs and insert them into organisms. People who were very competent molecular biologists started to recognize that they could do a lot more on the design side, and make far fewer difficult choices by using technology rather than going into the lab and building DNA by themselves. We have some really good molecular biologists that could build 50 or 100 strands a month, and now they can build 1,000 a month.”
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