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.
The heart of the machine is a silicon plate pocked with 10,000 tiny wells, which are etched using the same photolithography techniques perfected by computer chip manufacturers. A different strand of DNA can be constructed in each 600-nanometerwide well. The machine does “the exact same chemistry” as a Ph.D. student would do, Leproust says, “only in a volume that’s 100 times smaller.”
Twist isn’t selling its machine but rather its DNA manufacturing services, which are aimed at researchers and startups seeking new genetic modifications that might prove useful. In 2015 the company began production runs for select customers; 2016 will see Twist’s full commercial launch. DNA assembly is priced on a cost-per-base model, and Leproust says her company’s 10-cents-per-base starting price is already the best in the industry. But she’s aiming for a 2-cent price point.
Another synthetic-biology startup in the San Francisco area, Zymergen, offers customers a broader set of services. The company not only constructs DNA snippets on the cheap, it also inserts that DNA into microbes and monitors the outcome.