Two Graduate Students Found a Way to Create New Genes ‘Overnight’


Two graduate students, Sebastian Palluk and Daniel Arlow, have created a way to synthesize DNA in a faster, cheaper and easier way.

At the moment, creating a new gene is expensive and takes a lot of time. It’s a long process that can fail and, according to the researchers, the process usually runs out of juice after sequencing a short patch of code. To connect the short patches, scientists use enzymes to “stitch” them together, a process that is not always successful.

But now, two students have published the new method on 18 June in the journal Nature Biotechnology. Their discovery could eliminate many of the problems in DNA sequencing.

“DNA synthesis is at the core of everything we try to do when we build biology,” said JBEI CEO Jay Keasling, the corresponding author on the paper and a Berkeley Lab senior faculty scientist.

To build a genetic code, researchers add bases, one at a time, until it grows to 200 bases. Usually, when it grows to 200 bases, they have to stop and bind that bit to a new DNA bit. But the new method developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has a different approach.

Biologists Reacted: ‘It doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t seem right.’

Enzymes that bind the 200 base bit of DNA to a new one will now be used to bind DNA together, without the need to cut-off at 200 bases. This makes the work easier and faster. But why cheaper, when you use more enzyme?

“DNA is a huge biomolecule. Nature makes biomolecules using enzymes, and those enzymes are amazingly good at handling DNA and copying DNA. Typically our organic chemistry processes are not anywhere close to the precision that natural enzymes offer,” said Sebastian Palluk.

Thankfully, enzymes are cheap. The researchers stated that they had some problems convincing other biologists that the method really works because using enzymes to bind DNA directly is not something they’re accustomed to:

“Even when we had first results, people would say, ‘It doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t seem right. That’s not how you use an enzyme,'” said Palluk.

A “promising starting point”

Palluk explains that they just have a “promising starting point” and that they will soon “catch up soon and believe that we can push the system far beyond the current limitations of chemical synthesis.”

The method is still prone to failure, more than the traditional technique, and it’s not as fast as they students intend to make it. But with more work and development, they hope to “make a gene overnight,” says Arlow.

Arlow concludes that if they can “speed that up, it could drastically accelerate the whole process of discovery.”


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