Episode 35: Reading and Writing in a Universal Language

In this episode we spoke to Emily Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience. Twist has revolutionised the process of synthesising DNA which is used in applications spanning drug discovery to optimising crop production and beyond.

Previously, large volumes of reagents were required to manufacture DNA for genetic studies. Using the silicon chips, the whole process of gene building is miniaturised to such an extent that on the same chip 1000s of genes can be synthesised in parallel. This essentially brings the efficiency of silicon to the manufacturing of synthetic DNA. Which means that researchers can have access to many more genes, faster, and at reduced costs.

This silicon technique can directly impact the sustainability of manufacturing in one interesting application. In our daily lives we’re using chemicals all the time and these are principally made from oil as a source of carbon. This is, as we know is unsustainable and there is a growing number of manufacturers that are moving away from oil as a source of carbon. Now researchers can take advantage of the fermentation powers of yeast, where yeast is able to break down sugars into other compounds (such as alcohol). With some careful genetic tweaks you can make the chemicals you want from this fermentation process. Products can include carpets or isoprene for use in car tires, detergents, and even fragrances.

You can also develop new materials that were seemingly intractable without synthetic biology One recent example is the Adidas synthetic spider silk shoes. There’s a surprising…and deadly  reason but through fermentation you can simply convert sugar into silk.

It’s not just in the production of spider shoes, and nice smells that the tech from Twist can play a role in, there’s huge demand for synthetic genes in therapeutics as well. For antibody therapies, millions of antibodies must be screened to ensure they’re both effective and result in reduced side effects. This process could be vastly improved by rapid access to a huge array of DNA for the screening process.

Finally we wanted to get the lowdown on the partnership with Microsoft and Twist’s radical role in long term data storage in DNA. We’re currently living in a world that is increasingly relying on data, and with the advent of new tech such as Iot, we’re having to incorporate machine generated data to the pool. As such the long term storage on the information has never been more pressing and the market is huge. However, an archive of master copies has traditionally been written onto magnetic tape. This has a few pitfalls, one is that it requires a special type of storage, and the other is the redundancy half life of the machines that read the tape decays quickly, simply that equipment gets old and the tape must be updated alongside.

DNA on the other hand is permanent on the timescale of humans, and the amount of data you can store is impressive - a grain of salt size lump of DNA could store a terabyte of data. There will also always be a need to read DNA and so the equipment to read it will never become defunct, albeit improved. This is where Microsoft comes in, their work with researchers at the University of Washington showed that you could encode data into a genome synthesised on Twist’s silicon platform and then read it back with 100% fidelity

These examples show, in their own way, how improvingaccess to a huge array of DNA sequences can transform gene focussed R&D. We really enjoyed recording this episode, hope you enjoy listening.