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Advancing Synthetic Biology With Automation

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Biology is messy. For scientists, that’s part of its challenge—and its beauty. Synthetic biologists, however, aren’t just studying life. Instead, the field of synthetic biology is transforming cells into molecular factories that can make everything from food and fuel to pharmaceuticals and agriculture. The natural complexity and stochasticity of living systems makes this a complex task. To reprogram a cell requires more than just the right genes, it requires precisely balancing the timing and expression of each gene so reactions proceed in the right order and at the right time. Doing this requires accurate and precise editing methods and rounds and rounds of tuning.

Achieving this kind of accuracy, precision and repeatability is no easy feat. Add in budgetary constraints, and it’s a task that can seem impossibly complex. Companies on the cutting edge of biology—such as those challenging traditional manufacturing norms—are finding ways to tackle this head-on. The key to their successes in developing scientific breakthroughs—from mRNA vaccines and cancer treatments to drought-resistant crops—lies in how they have incorporated automation into a robust platform that rapidly adapts to the world’s changing needs.

In the past few years, automation has become key to biotech and synthetic biology success. Companies and labs that can’t adapt may find themselves struggling to properly allocate resources and generate sufficient data. To pave the way for long-term success, startups will need to develop platforms that can provide a range of solutions instead of one-off products. Modularity and automation will be critical components to ensuring the success of this model and will help enable companies to create robust and adaptable systems.

Investing in automation

DNA is the foundation to almost all synthetic biology experiments. Until recently, the only way to create a gene was to copy something that already existed somewhere in nature. A researcher could splice genes together in novel arrangements with restriction enzymes, but changing these strings of As, Ts, Gs and Cs was extremely complex and time consuming. Advancements in DNA synthesis, however, gave researchers the ability to introduce novel sequences into cells. Modern advancements in DNA synthesis allow companies like Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) to construct large and complicated DNA sequences from scratch quickly and economically, leveraging automation to reduce turnaround time and lower costs.

IDT continually invests in infrastructure that enables our company to adjust to dynamic customer needs. Investments in this workflow include equipment from other companies, such as Beckman Life Sciences’ Echo (a high-precision liquid handler that uses acoustics to transfer as little as 2.5 nL) and Molecular Devices’ QPix Colony Picker, which has allowed IDT to scale up production. This investment in automation has also facilitated IDT’s ability to improve production timelines.

Trial and error

Biology isn’t just complex. It’s also unpredictable. In the countless steps from designing synthetic DNA to the intended system, failures can, and will, occur. Working through the inevitable failures is an iterative process that often involves many rounds of designing, building and testing. Automation can streamline this journey and allow a researcher to iterate through such cycles more efficiently.

The advantages of automation do not end there. Synthetic biologists are constantly adjusting their methods in a never-ending process of trial and error. Automation allows scientists to spend less time picking bacterial colonies and pipetting liquids so they can devote more time understanding the science and finding creative solutions to problems. Technologies like robotic arms, liquid handlers and colony pickers can free up valuable employee time and brainpower to focus on the science at hand. Automation also allows labs to run 24/7, even if someone isn’t constantly at the bench.

Meeting dynamic needs in a changing world

Large academic labs and corporations have long had a need for automation, and smaller labs and startups that have historically relied on manual labor can reap the benefits of automating, too. The preliminary data sets required for small R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health meet their needs.

Automation and modularity have helped biopharma meet the sudden demands of the pandemic world. Without automation, companies developing single products or single solutions will face scale-up problems and be forced to pivot, leaving those who develop platforms or processes with the upper hand to better adapt to the growing automation demands.

About the author:

Adam Clore is Director of Development & Innovation at Integrated DNA Technologies.