While the price and speed of reading DNA have dropped massively, writing DNA fast and affordably still remains a challenge. Philip talked to Sylvain Gariel, COO of the French company DNA Script, who strives to reinvent DNA synthesis.
DNA has become a basic necessity in any biology lab. Thanks to new technologies we can now read the entire human genome in one day and for a few hundred euros. Still, we are writing DNA in basically the same way we did over 50 years ago.
DNA Script was founded in 2014 with the goal of changing that. In an industry where DNA is traditionally synthesized using organic chemistry, this company aims to shift towards a biological solution that makes use of the enzymes that living beings naturally use to make their own DNA.
“One of the things enzymatic DNA synthesis can do very well is high speed reactions,” explained Gariel, adding that this technology also makes it easier to automate DNA synthesis.
Today, DNA is typically produced by a specialized third party. The scientist makes an order and the DNA is in the lab within 1-3 days. The goal of DNA Script is to allow scientists to obtain the DNA they need within 1-3 hours using equipment that sits on their bench.
“In the end what matters is not the synthetic DNA, what matters is the results of your experiments, getting access to the data you need to test your hypothesis and move to the next steps,” said Gariel.
In some cases, a faster turnaround can make a big difference. “Let’s say you are at a children’s hospital,” said Gariel. When a baby is terminally ill, the doctor might suspect it is due to a genetic condition.
“To get to that diagnostic you need to do old genome sequencing, and you can do that fairly fast, but then you end up with sequencing data that you somehow need to confirm.” That requires ordering small pieces of DNA that serve as primers to sequence specific parts of the genome with higher precision. In this case, waiting for days can interfere with finding the right treatment for the child.
However, in most cases it is not a matter of life and death to have the DNA they need within hours rather than days. Scientists are used to waiting. But Gariel believes that will change when fast and convenient equipment becomes available. “Do you really need a smartphone? In a world where no one has one, maybe not, but then some people start using them and then it becomes the standard.”
DNA Script is not the only one aiming to bring forth this change. Its US counterpart, Twist Bioscience, has developed a method for enzymatic DNA synthesis and it already produces DNA for customers faster and cheaper than conventional chemical synthesis services. DNA Script aims to take it one step further and make this technology directly available in every lab.
Getting there is not a walk in the park. “All of the hardware that has been developed for DNA synthesis to date was developed for organic solvents while everything we are doing is water-based,” said Gariel. “We have to develop a new kind of hardware and processes to make this synthesis happen.”
So far, the French company has shown that its enzyme technology can match the performance of chemical methods. The company is now shifting to commercial mode as it eyes the goal of launching its first DNA synthesis equipment in 2021. According to Gariel, the main goal for the first product is that people can start experiencing “how it can change the way they work in their lab on a daily basis.”
Faster and cheaper DNA writing could unlock some very exciting applications in synthetic biology, such as using DNA as data storage. Although the capacity of DNA to store information is tremendous, the speed at which we can encode this information into a DNA sequence is currently the main bottleneck. Gariel sees a clear parallel with the revolution that happened in reading DNA with the advent of next-generation sequencing. It’s now time for writing DNA to get up to speed.
Images via Shutterstock; DNA Script