Desktop genetic engineering.

By Kevin Kelly

I spent a day recently a biotechnology trade show, snooping around the
aisles of plumbing and lob gear to see how close we ore to having gene
equipment that would work in a suburban garage. was looking for
off-the-shelf components that could be assembled by a dedicated individual
into o lob for homebrewed DNA. / was surprised by how close it has come.
While most of the equipment for biotechnology is either delicate but
cumbersome laboratory research instruments, or massive industrial/chemical
plumbing for production purposes, there are o couple of items that hove
miniaturized the research methods into o suggestive desktop space. The
leader in self-contained DNA coding gear is Applied Biosystems. Their star
contraption is a table-top box linked to a Macintosh computer that will
assemble a short string of DNA from the order that you type into the Mac.
The unit generates the DNA sequence from the some four amino acids that
cellular DNA does. in this case the amino acids are provided in small
bottles in the front of the box, along with bottles of solvent to drive the
process. The DNA is  outputted" into a tiny capillary tube. While the
machine is 99.8% accurate in what it constructs, the major (and it is major)
drawback is that it con assemble sequences that are no more than 180 units
long, which would make one short gene, at most. (Genes, like words, vary in
length.) Since human genes come in the order of about one billion units,
there is a way to go in improvements. On the other hand, since the
alteration of even one gene con make a big difference in a living organism
(many congenital diseases are due to a single gene), there is still power in
being able to rewrite o couple of hundred units. A complementary box made by
Applied Biosystems works in reverse. Rather than going from code to DNA, it
goes from DNA to code. It takes a bit of existing DNA and  reads" its
sequence out as a display on the computer - ATTCGGACA, etc., for instance.
Not only con this verify a sequence one builds, but its main purpose is to
unravel the genetic code encrypted in all living things. It too is severely
limited in the amount of DNA it con handle at one time. But the task of
deciphering chromosomes that are 5 million genes long would be o bummer
without it. The two machines work as a pair. Both together would fit onto a
kitchen countertop. These units by themselves are not enough to do
biotechnology research. Sundry other hi-tech items, as well as low-tech ones
like incubators, cold rooms and basic labware, are essential. But these two
systems ore the heart of the hard work; they automate what was tedious and
unpredictable toil just a few years ago. I'd guess that true basement
biotechnology is still at least a decade away, if only because of the price
$50,000 for each of these machines alone)aond the expertise  Ph.0) needed to
get them going.  -Kevin Kelly Information from: Applied Biosystems, inc.,
850 Lincoln Center Drive, Foster City, CA 94404.


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