October 17, 2007
Gene and genome synthesis, that is, constructing long stretches of DNA from constituent chemicals, provides scientists with new and unparalleled capabilities both for understanding biology and for using it for beneficial purposes. But along with new capabilities come new risks.
Synthetic genomics combines methods for the chemical synthesis of DNA with computational techniques for its design, allowing scientists to construct genetic material that would be impossible or impractical using more conventional biotechnological approaches. The constructed DNA can then be used in a wide variety of applications that could potentially lead to improvements in human health, the environment, and basic research, among others.
The synthesis of relatively short stretches of DNA (called oligonucleotides) using specialized machines has been possible for nearly 25 years. Two advances have changed the landscape in the last five years or so. First, researchers have learned to speed up the process of stitching together small pieces of DNA into large, gene- or genome-sized pieces, so that the DNA of, for example, a medium-sized virus can be constructed in a matter of weeks. Second, there has been a proliferation of companies with proprietary technologies that are able to synthesize gene- and genome-length DNA at prices that are within reach of many researchers; these prices are rapidly dropping.