July 27, 2009
Gene Editing Sped Up By Orders Of Magnitude
Another example of why the future is coming sooner than you might expect.
BOSTON, Mass. (July 26, 2009) — High-throughput sequencing has turned biologists into voracious genome readers, enabling them to scan millions of DNA letters, or bases, per hour. When revising a genome, however, they struggle, suffering from serious writer's block, exacerbated by outdated cell programming technology. Labs get bogged down with particular DNA sentences, tinkering at times with subsections of a single gene ad nauseam before moving along to the next one.
A team has finally overcome this obstacle by developing a new cell programming method called Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering (MAGE). Published online in Nature on July 26, the platform promises to give biotechnology, in particular synthetic biology, a powerful boost.
Led by a pair of researchers in the lab of Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics George Church, the team rapidly refined the design of a bacterium by editing multiple genes in parallel instead of targeting one gene at a time. They transformed self-serving E. coli cells into efficient factories that produce a desired compound, accomplishing in just three days a feat that would take most biotech companies months or years.
We can't predict future rates of progress based on past rates of progress because enabling technologies can pop up (like above) that suddenly can shift the rate of progress into very high gear.
Imagine applying this technique above to reengineering bacteria or algae to make liquid biofuels such as biodiesel. That's still not easy to do because scientists do not yet know which genetic changes they'd need to make to achieve a useful genetically engineered biodiesel producing organism. But the actual genetic modification won't be the hard part. The hard part will be knowing which mods to make.
Biomass energy production with ponds of genetically engineered organisms is probably one of the harder problems for which genetic engineering might be done. Biomass energy production requires very high efficiencies at very large scale. Relatively easier problems include producing drugs which get used in milligram or gram doses.
Where could very rapid automated gene customization deliver its greatest punch in medical treatment? How about antibody production against cancers? Large numbers of antibodies could be produced to try against each cancer. Might work.
It all becomes clear. The "gray goo" about which technophobes enjoy fantasizing, well that's simply diesel-producing algae engineered to grow faster than Kudzu! And imagine the cost savings for pharmaceuticals.
Next up: a bonsai yum-yum tree.
Sooner or later the only question is whether iGene is going to better than Adobe Recombinance (and whether Microsoft can get Microsoft DNA to stop turning your fingernails green before version 4.)
Let's see...I was going to make a bacteria to scour the food residue off Aunt Gracie's carpet, but she made me mad, so I think I'll just have it eat the carpet backing instead.
Open-source genetics - "Anyone want a persimmon that looks like a scrotum? No? Oh, man, I worked on that all summer."
They just solved the food shortage problem, really.
See: in vitro meat and vegetables, aka: cultured meat, victimless meat, vat-grown meat, hydroponic meat.
Possible future applications in Pharma? mebbe
even in a 3D printing/ 'replicator' ala MIT's Neil Gershenfeld ?
Applications in Smart Materials and materials engineering???
The possiblities may not be endless, but we're talking about something more than biofuels, here.
Regards genetically engineered algae and its potential to propagate: Probably not a problem. An algae strain that took most of the output of its photosynthesis and used it to excrete oil would be at a competitive disadvantage to natural strains. Such strains are analogous to farm crop strains that would be driven extinct by natural competitors of humans ever went extinct.
The real problem with genetically engineered algae strains is just how to keep natural organisms from thriving in their growing ponds.
If they can get synthesis cheap and fast enough they won't have to "know" which mods to make. They'll use "the Darwin method" and try them all.
Wild persimmons already look like a scrotum when ripe. The plum round ones you get in the super market are a diploid genetic mutation.
Wild persimmons change color before they get wrinkly, sweet and ripe. Unripe persimmons are are extremely bitter. That made for a great joke on the farm- If you hand someone a ripe persimmon and an unripe orange one, they would always choose the unripe one, bite into it, and have an awesome reaction.
That should have been plump round, NOT plum round.
Lots of jokes here, but...are we beginning to feel a bit nervous? If we assume that we're on the verge of oilgae, or whatever, and on the verge of electric cars, and on the verge of real AI (see the self-taught acrobatic helo, or the medical receptionist kiosk), could Robin Hanson in IEEE be right? I didn't use to think so, but...