Synthetic biology innovation many times more cost effective

Inside and outside of the classroom, MIT professor Joseph Jacobson has become a prominent figure in — and advocate for — the emerging field of synthetic biology.

As head of the Molecular Machines group at the MIT Media Lab, Jacobson’s work has focused on, among other things, developing technologies for the rapid fabrication of DNA molecules. In 2009, he spun out some of his work into Gen9, which aims to boost synthetic-biology innovation by offering scientists more cost-effective tools and resources.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gen9 has developed a method for synthesizing DNA on silicon chips, which significantly cuts costs and accelerates the creation and testing of genes. Commercially available since 2013, the platform is now being used by dozens of scientists and commercial firms worldwide.

Synthetic biologists synthesize genes by combining strands of DNA. These new genes can be inserted into microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria. Using this approach, scientists can tinker with the cells’ metabolic pathways, enabling the microbes to perform new functions, including testing new antibodies, sensing chemicals in an environment, or creating biofuels.

But conventional gene-synthesizing methods can be time-consuming and costly. Chemical-based processes, for instance, cost roughly 20 cents per base pair — DNA’s key building block — and produce one strand of DNA at a time. This adds up in time and money when synthesizing genes comprising 100,000 base pairs.

Gen9’s chip-based DNA, however, drops the price to roughly 2 cents per base pair, Jacobson says. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of base pairs can be tested and compiled in parallel, as opposed to testing and compiling each pair individually through conventional methods.

This means faster testing and development of new pathways — which usually takes many years — for applications such as advanced therapeutics, and more effective enzymes for detergents, food processing, and biofuels, Jacobson says. “If you can build thousands of pathways on a chip in parallel, and can test them all at once, you get to a working metabolic pathway much faster,” he says.

Over the years, Jacobson and Gen9 have earned many awards and honors. In November, Jacobson was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for co-inventing E Ink, the electronic ink used for Amazon’s Kindle e-reader display.

Scaling gene synthesizing

Throughout the early-and mid-2000s, a few important pieces of research came together to allow for the scaling up of gene synthesis, which ultimately led to Gen9.

First, Jacobson and his students Chris Emig and Brian Chow began developing chips with thousands of “spots,” which each contained about 100 million copies of a different DNA sequence.