A DNA Synthesizer is a device for manufacturing DNA
Analysis 2006-07-02, Lion Kimbro
Caution: I don't understand bio-engineering very well. I put this here so that it can be improved.
Where are we now?
We have machines that can automatically generate strings of DNA. (name?) It can take weeks to generate longer strains of DNA. Unanswered questions: How many DNA chains do you get; do we produce DNA in parallel? At what rate are base pairs generated, per unit time? Are they fragile? Are longer chains exponentially harder to make?
- Longer chains are more fragile. The quantity produced is small but can be readily increased by PCR. DNA is typically incorporated into plasmids and then in the target genome.
Or is it just a matter of how long you're willing to let the machine sit? What are the future prospects of the technology: Is it developing on an S-curve? Is it ramping up, or slowing down? How does this capability fit in with the big picture: Once you've manufactured DNA, what can you do with it? can you put it into a cell or virus, and start "executing" it? If so, then why aren't we producing, say, t-shirts, by biomanufacturing? (Probably not, but what would we expect to make?)
- Typically we modify a single gene, and we are perturbing it, or taking a known gene from one creature and putting it in another (e.g. for phosphoresence), or changing the triggers that activate it, so that a fly gets eyes on its feet. We don't know how to design simple things in protein, such as a count down timer, we don't really know enough to design a new protein from first principles, e.g. an enzyme that digests CD ROMs. For a t-shirt we'd probably need to design a new kind of sheep that sheds its skin in a near perfect t-shirt shape, or at least a shape the shrinks into a t shirt on first washing. You wouldn't get a stand-alone t-shirt. We're a long long way off from that kind of ability.
What's the significance of this technology, and what are it's niches?
- The significance seems to be that this is (A) programmatic, and (B) intensely powerful. If you can programmatically produce DNA sequences, then you can start experimenting with the full range of cellular expression. This is summarized in the phrase: "Biotechnology is now an Information Technology."  Experiments lead to knowledge, knowledge leads to control, control leads to manufacturing.
- My understanding is that DNA chains for bacteria can be made automatically, and fairly quickly, and that people are experimenting in that realm.