Can They Really Print Out DNA?

June 11, 2013

11 Jun (GAIA HEALTH) – Synthetic Biology and DNA Printing: What Are They? Can they really just print out DNA? Or is it hype? Is it a new Pandora’s box? The developers of this new technology claim that it’s nothing more than the next step of evolution—that genetic engineering is no different than what nature has always done.                                                                                                                                                                            by Heidi Stevenson

Two new startups are trying to position themselves as the equivalent of Microsoft and Intel in the genetics engineering field. They’re attempting to look like struggling developers à la the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) of Apple, who built their first computer in a garage. Using the language of the computer revolution, they’re hyping ideas like crowd-sourced funding, public domain DNA compiling, and laser printing of DNA. What’s the reality behind the hype?

The two startups are Genome Compiler in Tel-Aviv and Cambrian Genomics in San Francisco. Their concept is that ordinary people, if they have the free compiler provided by Genome, can design their own genetic sequences, which can then be inserted into real DNA by Cambrian Genomics with their new “DNA printing” technology. The overall term for it—and for any genetic engineering—is synthetic biology. To make it seem really friendly, exciting, and even the right thing to do, it’s being described as “democratizing creation”.

THE SYSTEM OF SYNTHESIZING BIOLOGY

Genome Compiler founder, Omri Amirav-Drory, cutely describes the nature of biology like this:

“We are democratizing creation. Cells are nothing more than a computer, running a program and the program is the genetic code. The code is DNA. The software are the chromosomes. The hardware is the wetware.[1]”

The reality is far from his simplified hype would have us believe. It’s recently become more and more clear that DNA does not rule cells. As the new field of epigenetics is demonstrating, genes appear to be more controlled by their environment than in control of it.[2,3] The basic concept in Amirav-Drury’s analogy is simply wrong. Yes, when dealing with computers, the program is the boss. However, when dealing with life, the DNA is not the boss.

Cells are considerably more than computers, and the molecules that form cells—Amirav-Drury’s “wetware”—are considerably more than dumb structures just sitting around waiting to be told what to do by the DNA. The analogy is cute, but meaningless.

In the computer world, a compiler is a program that takes the code written by a programmer and converts it into machine language that a computer understands. It is, in fact, a program that converts code into another program. The genome compiler is a program that converts the code defined by the user into a potential DNA sequence.

Austen Heinz, founder of Cambrian Genomics, has designed what’s being called a DNA printer to produce genetic sequences that people design with Amirav-Drury’s freeware. It is not, in reality, a printer, nor does it act like one. The term is used simply because it’s great for hyping the project.

DNA “PRINTING”

Austen Heinz’s system is a major new development in genetic engineering because it dramatically brings down the time and cost of making genetic sequences. You might want to think of it as akin to what Henry Ford did for automobiles, streamlining the manufacturing process and bringing the price down to make them available to everyone.

The first part of the process is unchanged from how it’s now being done. DNA is formed of two sets of base pairs: adenine- thymine and guanine-cytosine. These pairs define each step of the double helix ladder that makes up DNA. Sequences of adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C) define the inheritable genetic structure of all living beings, from viruses—which are, literally, the borderline between living and non-living—to bacteria, fungus, plants, animals, and us.

The first step is to mass produce thousands of A-T and G-C base pairs in a defined sequence on a glass plate. This is the same technique that’s now in use. The problem is that the error rate is very high.

This is where Heinz’s system has introduced a new method to resolve the problem of separating the correct sequences from the incorrect ones. A technique called DNA sequencing is used to find series of base pairs that are in the desired sequence. Heinz states that, “we use laser catapulting, also known as laser-induced forward transfer, to eject clonal DNA populations.”[4]

The laser catapulting technique is referred to as laser printing. As Gerald Templeton writes in Extreme Tech, “It would be more accurate to call it DNA Laser Sorting.”[5] The laser tosses the correct sequences from the microarray plate of glass to a collector. From this point, the collected DNA sequences can be processed in the usual manner.

This brings the price of recombinant DNA technology down by thousands of times over the current cost. It is, in fact, the extremely high price of genetic engineering that’s kept it in the hands of megacorporations like Monsanto and Syngenta.

THE FIRST “DEMOCRATIZED’ GENETIC ENGINEERING PROJECT

The very first project being developed is plants that glow like fireflies. It seems downright fun. Amirav-Drury envisions trees that glow in the dark being able to replace street lights. He presents it as having no downside. But is that realistic?

Remember TANSTAAFL? It’s an acronym for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” You can think of it as a basic law of physics. The creation of light requires energy. It doesn’t come from nothing. While it’s far more efficient to create light the way a firefly does, through its own ATP, than the way a lightbulb does, note that ATP is energy that’s required to exist. Therefore, a glowing tree will require more nutrients to be able to redirect energy from its normal uses into light. Glowing trees must adhere to the law of TANSTAAFL. The energy to allow trees to glow is not free. Nature does not allow us to avoid paying the price.

There is also the existing concern of light pollution. We’re losing the ability to see the heavens because ot it, and there are other more subtle concerns. Existing street lighting can, at least, be turned off. There’s no way to turn a tree off without killing it.

In the few wild places left on earth, the day-night cycle is critical to most animals’ and plants’ behavior. Would glowing trees interfere? The fact is that we simply don’t know. We do, though, know that bioengineered plants can and do escape into the wild and crossbreed with other plants, thus passing on the engineered traits. This has already resulted in superweeds and the recent discovery of Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn miles from where it was originally grown and a few years after it had all supposedly been destroyed.

Imagine that the gene for glowing somehow transfers into a key plant in the environment, perhaps something as basic and critical as grass. What would that do? Some of the energy required for growth or reproduction would be redirected toward producing light—light that would be of no benefit to the grass. The ultimate result of something like that could have a domino effect and be disastrous for life on earth.

Even something that seems, at first blush, to be harmless may not be. The risks involving genetic engineering are not minor. The fact is that we never know what’s being unleashed when we fiddle with genes.

A NATURAL EVOLUTIONARY STEP?

Heinz and Amirav-Drury would have us believe that this act of creation, as they’re describing it, is perfectly natural—literally a normal step in evolution. They claim that mixing up genes is no different from what nature has always done.

That is pure hubris. The fact is that no flrefly gene has ever been transferred to a plant before this project was started. No gene could ever be transferred from an animal to a plant, or vice versa. Gene sequences did not simply jump out of one species and into another (with the exception of cooperating bacteria).

Yet that is precisely what genetic engineering is … or, in reality, was until the advent of artificially created genes. Now, genes are literally designed with the help of computers and then inserted into living things. Nature has never simply created strings of genetic code and inserted them into existing organisms.

That, though, is precisely what Heinz and Amirav-Drury would have us believe happens in nature. The ability to glow exists as a result of evolution. It does not exist in trees, and nature has no means by which the genetic code for bioluminescence could possibly be transferred from a firefly to a plant.

It’s magical thinking to even suggest such an idea. What sort of diversion into fantasy allows such obviously intelligent and creative thinkers to spew such utter nonsense?

For complete article and list of sources go to Gaia Health.

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