DNA Manufacturing Enters the Age of Mass Production
Synthetic-biology startups adopt technologies from the computer industry
By Eliza Strickland
Posted 23 Dec 2015 | 16:03 GMT
Emily Leproust, CEO and cofounder of the buzzy biotech startup Twist Bioscience, is an industrialist on the nanoscale. “I remind everyone at Twist, we are a manufacturing company,” she says. “We manufacture DNA.”
Twist is part of the young industry of synthetic biology, in which living organisms are the product and a biology lab is the factory floor. By manufacturing strands of DNA—assembling the genetic code of life from its basic components—scientists are creating organisms the likes of which the world has never seen. And these new life forms can be decidedly useful: Biologists have produced yeast cells that excrete pharmaceuticals and algae that brew jet fuel.
DNA Factory: Twist Bioscience’s machine builds DNA strands inside 600-nanometer wells on a silicon plate. This burgeoning business sector has been hampered by the labor-intensive nature of DNA assembly, a painstaking process requiring trained personnel. Now, nimble startups are competing to fashion automated DNA assembly lines that would make Henry Ford proud, using techniques copied from the fabs that make computer chips. As their innovations bring down the cost of constructing DNA strands, these entrepreneurs are aiming for a low price point, which they say will cause a market boom. Twist Bioscience, which will begin commercial operations at its San Francisco headquarters in 2016, is a leading contender in that race to the bottom.