posted on March 25, 2013 |
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Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics, opened his talk at the Solve for X conference with a simple premise: “Many of you guys know about the Makerbot or the Formlab printer for making plastic… 3D objects. That’s cool, everyone can use a computer, design a 3D plastic object, print it out test it, see if it works. And it’s affordable enough that pretty much anyone can buy one of these machines.”
But in his very next sentence, Heinz turned his talk from routine recap to one of the more impressive ideas I heard in a while. “But what is we could actually afford to make living creatures, by using a computer to design it, printing out the sequence that codes for the organism and then test it to see what it does.”
Heinz goes on to explain that one of the biggest stumbling blocks in modern genetics is the cost of printing DNA bases. Currently, a single character in a genetic sequence, one of those As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that form the building blocks of life, cost $1 to print. At that price, printing the entire genetic sequence of a human being would cost upwards of $2.2 billion.
To bring the economics of creating a genetic sequence down to more reasonable scale, Cambrian Genomics is proposing a laser printer that can create up to a hundred strands of DNA base pairs per second.
By using a combination of known science (microarray DNA synthesis) and new techniques, the Cambrian printer attaches synthesized base pairs to “mircobeads” (little dots with base pair hairs all around them) that are layered on a glass slide. A laser is then rapidly passed over the glass slide, and it “selects” the correct base pair from the microbead to create your custom genetic sequence. These selections are then built up one by one to create a full genetic sequence.
Now, printing base pairs doesn’t mean you’ve created life. There’s a ton of complex biology that has to occur for a genetic sequence to be “booted-up” to bring a cell to life. However, Heinz’s Cambrian Genomics seems to be making great strides towards this end goal. In fact, the company was recently awarded Phase 1 funding for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) project to create “Massively Parallel Closed-Loop Gene Synthesis”.
While there are certainly ethical questions that come into play with this type of “design” and making, the fact that this type of printing is within our reach is incredible in and of itself.
Watch Heinz’s Talk:
Images and Video Courtesy of Cambrian Genomics and Solve for X