DNA Synthesis for Beginners: Ginkgo BioWorks Sells the Scissors and Glue

3/19/10Follow @xconomy

The founders of Boston-based Ginkgo BioWorks think that assembling synthetic biological systems shouldn’t just be for experienced researchers. So they put together a kit that consists of the “scissors and glue for putting together pieces of DNA,” says co-founder Reshma Shetty.

Unlike the electronics industry, which sets standards to ensure compatibility and interoperability, the methods for putting together pieces of DNA are typically much more fragmented and ad hoc. Biologists build biological systems and organisms for functions such as producing everything from fuel to drugs to consumer products. The Ginkgo kit builds on a publicly available standard for connecting pieces of DNA, developed in 2003 by another Ginkgo co-founder, MIT senior research scientist Tom Knight. Called the BioBrick standard, it facilitates the assembly of multi-gene systems, and allows parts to be more easily shared within the synthetic biology community.

Ginkgo’s BioBrick Assembly Kit includes the reagents for constructing BioBrick parts, which are nucleic acid sequences that encode a specific biological function and adhere to the BioBrick assembly standard. The kit, which includes the instructions for putting those parts together, sells for $235 through the New England BioLabs, an Ipswich, MA-based supplier of reagents for the life sciences industry.

Shetty didn’t release any specific sales figures for the kit, but said its users include students, researchers, and industrial companies. The kit was also intended to be used in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), in Cambridge, MA. The undergraduate contest, co-launched by Knight, challenges students teams to use the biological parts to build systems and operate them in living cells.

The assembly kit is the first product from Ginkgo, which was started in 2008 by Shetty, Knight, and three other MIT PhDs, but the company is also working on rolling out a consulting-style service for more elaborate DNA construction. They plan to work with companies on determining how they can design biological systems to fit their business functions, modeling what that system would look like, and testing it. “We’re focused on the tools and services for engineering biological systems,” says Shetty. “We think of ourselves as a biological design firm.”

Ginkgo (named after the tree) isn’t pursuing any venture capital funding, because it hasn’t needed it, Shetty says. In September 2009, the company received a $150,000 loan from LifeTech Boston, a city initiative aimed to grow the life sciences industry. Ginkgo was also selected that month to be part of an initiative in Scotland to improve synthetic DNA assembly. ITI Life Sciences, a unit formed by the Scottish government to strengthen the life sciences industry in the country, dedicated $4.1 million to the project.

While many established life sciences companies have in-house personnel dedicated to constructing biological systems, many other industries—from cosmetics to cleantech—can benefit from simple tools for the construction of synthetic DNA, Shetty says. A makeup manufacturer who uses a plant compound in its products could use the kit for constructing bacteria or yeast to create a synthetic form of that compound, for example. That way the company wouldn’t be affected by price increases from a bad crop of the plant. “It’s cheaper and more reliable manufacturing,” Shetty says.

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