Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Create Life From Your Computer Just $1.60/Base Pair

I was reading this article in Wired about how MIT has a new synthetic biology department where they are trying to take bacteria and build them from the ground up to perform tasks like oscillators and logic gates. Basically they are trying to build a kids electronic set out of biology.

Then I was amazed to find out that there is a company Blue Heron that will create your DNA sequence for you. Basically, you go to your PC and start banging out the A,C,G and Ts of your gene. Then you upload the digital sequence to them over the internet. Then they check it for viruses (no not computer viruses they check that you aren't trying to build a real virus)! Then they build it for you and 2-4 weeks later they ship you out a test tube that has bacteria with you sequence in them. The whole thing is outlined here and here. This is mind blowing stuff. And the price is only $1.60 a base pair with Moores Law kind of price improvements.

What does this mean? Right now there is a iPhoto module of Apple's iLife where upload your photos, digitally alter them and then you can send some off over the internet to Apple where they will print out a physical picture and send it to you mail.

Imagine another module for iLife called, err ahh well, iLife where you can download DNA snippets or genes from BLAST, digitally manipulate the A,C,G,Ts to create something novel and then send the data off to Blue Heron where they will create the DNA, insert it into a vector and send it to you in the mail. This is crazy. Just like GarageBand can make anyone an amateur musician, iLife can make anyone an amateur bio-scientist (or since you are making life an amateur God if you prefer).

I so want to send in a snippet of DNA just so I can say I created life (and for only $50!). Maybe I will try and spell my name in amino-acids or maybe I can do something worthy:

Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at UC Berkeley, is modifying bacteria to help make the malaria drug artemisinin. This treatment is far more effective than its current competitors but also far more expensive to produce. Keasling's approach would be impossibly complicated without synthetic techniques; he's assembling 10 genes from three different organisms and forging a new metabolic pathway. He has already improved the artificial pathway's productivity a millionfold. If he can make it a hundred times better still, he'll churn out artemisinin cheaply enough to save a great many more lives.

Cool, cool stuff.

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