“If your part obeys those rules, we can use identical reactions every time to assemble those fragments into larger constructs,” says Knight. “That allows us to standardize and automate the process of assembly. If we want to put 100 different versions of a system together, we can do that straightforwardly, whereas it would be a tedious job to do with manual techniques.” The most complicated part that Ginkgo has built to date is a piece of DNA with 15 genes and a total of 30,000 DNA letters. The part was made for a private partner, and its function has not been divulged.
Assembling parts is only part of the challenge in building biological machines. Different genes can have unanticipated effects on each other, interfering with the ultimate function. “One of the things we’ll be able to do is to assemble hundreds or thousands of versions of a specific pathway with slight variations,” says Knight. Scientists can then determine which version works best.
So far, Knight says, the greatest interest has come from manufacturing companies making chemicals for cosmetics, perfumes, and flavorings. “Many of them are trying to replace a dirty chemical process with an environmentally friendly, biologically based process,” he says.
Ginkgo is one of just a handful of synthetic-biology companies. Codon Devices, a well-funded startup that synthesized DNA, ceased operations earlier this year. “The challenge now is not to synthesize genes; there are a few companies that do that,” says Shetty. “It’s to build pathways that can make specific chemicals, such as fuels.” And unlike Codon, Ginkgo is starting small. The company is funded by seed money and a $150,000 loan from Lifetech Boston, a program to attract biotech to Boston. Its lab space is populated with banks of PCR machines, which amplify DNA, and liquid-handling robots, mostly bought on eBay or from other biotech firms that have gone out of business. And the company already has a commercial product–a kit sold through New England Biolabs that allows scientists to put together parts on their own.
“If successful, they will be providing a very important service for synthetic biology,” says Chris Voigt, a synthetic biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “There isn’t anybody else who would be characterizing and providing parts to the community. I think that this type of research needs to occur outside of the academic community–at either a company or a nonprofit institute.”