October 29, 2012, 11:07 AM GMT–TEL AVIV—Technology is a democratizing force, but a digital start-up here in Israel is taking democracy to a new limit; in the words of its founder, it is “democratizing creation.”
Genome Compiler is, as the name suggests, a compiler for genetic material. It allows a user to design bespoke DNA which can then be used to create new organisms. Or put it another way, you can create life.
Genome compiler works on the parallel with an ordinary compiler. A compiler takes a higher level code and turns it into something that is executable. The difference is that in computers the output is binary codes (1s and 0s) and it runs on a computer: with living organisms it is genetic code (the four nucleotide bases G, A, T, and C) and it runs in a cell.
“Every living thing is just an app,” says Omri Amirav-Drory, founder and CEO. “We can program cells because they are just another form of information technology.”
“There are two basic technologies in this field of synthetic biology,” he said. “The ability to read DNA, or sequence it; and the ability to write it, or synthesize it. Today you can go to your local chemical store and buy a bottle of G or T or any of them. Then there is the technology to synthesize DNA. There are almost 20 companies today where you can send them a text file with the string of the DNA you want and they will ship you the DNA back.”
“It costs about 20¢ to 80¢ a letter to synthesize DNA. So a virus of about 10,000 letters would be somewhere between $2,000 to $8,000 to produce; it will actually be closer to $8,000, but the price is going down.”
Once you have the genetic material, he says, you inject it into living cells where the cell machinery will reproduce.
None of this is new. The first living creature artificially created was a polio virus in 2002.
The missing part, says Mr. Amirav-Drory, is that genetic engineers are still writing gene sequences using the four nucleotides. “They don’t have the design tools, the combine and debug tools like you have in software.” His biggest competitor, he said, is a notebook.
That is where Genome compiler steps in. It is a drag-and-drop genome construction tool, like computer aided design for genes (Autodesk is an investor).
To create your own new life form, you start a new project and then import an existing genome either from those built in to the app, or download from the world’s open-source genome banks. Then it is just a question of adding constituent parts from other genomes until you have built the string you want. But, stresses Mr. Amirav-Drory, you do have to know what you are doing. Future versions of the product may have a database of desired traits (such as luminescence etc) but that is some way off…Read More>>