DNA 'Printing' A Big Boon To Research, But Some Raise Concerns

DNA 'Printing' A Big Boon To Research, But Some Raise Concerns

9:40pm Jun 17, 2015
Cambrian Genomics says that what it calls a DNA printer is essentially a DNA sorter — it quickly spots and collects the desired, tailored stretch of DNA.
Cambrian Genomics says that what it calls a DNA printer is essentially a DNA sorter — it quickly spots and collects the desired, tailored stretch of DNA.
Courtesy of Cambrian Genomics

Here's something that might sound strange: There are companies now that print and sell DNA.

This trend — which uses the term "print" in the sense of making a bunch of copies speedily — is making particular stretches of DNA much cheaper and easier to obtain than ever before. That excites many scientists who are keen to use these tailored strings of genetic instructions to do all sorts of things, ranging from finding new medical treatments to genetically engineering better crops.

"So much good can be done," says Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics in San Francisco, one of the companies selling these stretches of DNA.

But some of the ways Heinz and others talk about the possible uses of the technology also worries some people who are keeping tabs on the trend.

"I have significant concerns," says Marcy Darnovsky, who directs the Center for Genetics and Society, a genetics watchdog group.

A number of companies have been taking advantage of several recent advances in technology to produce DNA quickly and cheaply. Heinz says his company has made the process even cheaper.

"Everyone else that makes DNA, makes DNA incorrectly and then tries to fix it," Heinz says. "We don't fix it. We just see what's good, what's bad and then we use the correct pieces."

The company does that by putting chunks of their DNA on tiny metal beads that emit different colors. That lets a computer scan millions of pieces of DNA to find the right ones.

"So we just take a picture, change a filter, take a picture, change a filter, take a picture, change a filter. And we read the sequences," he says.

It's basically a high-tech version of a spell-checker.

Then Cambrian chooses and "prints" the correct stretch of DNA by firing a computer-controlled laser beam at a glass tray holding millions of these tiny metal beads, each one coated with DNA. The impact of the laser propels the bead carrying the correct DNA into a tray.

"The DNA laser 'printer' is essentially a sorter," he says. It can produce any strand of DNA, made to order, and Heinz can crank out a lot of DNA this way.

So far, the company's main customers are drug companies, which use the strings of DNA Cambrian Genomics makes to do things like genetically engineer microbes to try to find new medicines.

"They may be interested in making a protein that attacks a cancer cell with some kind of killer payload," he says.

Other users are genetically engineering plants to try to make them grow better. But Heinz envisions a day when mass-produced DNA can genetically engineer people — or let anyone use DNA like computer code to design their own organisms.

"I think some people will find the process of designing and making organisms just fun, in and of itself," he says.

But this sort of talk makes some people nervous.

"Heinz talks openly about everybody being able to create entirely novel creatures," Darnovsky says. "Is that what we want? Do we want anybody, including potential terrorists, to be able to create entirely novel life forms — new creatures? Do we want the teenager next door to be creating Godzilla in the bathtub? I don't want that."

She also worries about genetically engineered plants running amok, ruining the environment. And, she says, genetically engineering people would be even worse.

"Many of the figures in the synthetic biology field are not shy at all about embracing that prospect that we're going to use synthetic biology to redesign humanity and to engineer the traits in our children," she says. "And that I find extremely disturbing."

But others say those kinds of fears are exaggerated.

"Like every other technology, we need to be paying attention to how it's used," says Rob Carlson, a biotechnology analyst at Seattle-based Biodesic. But "it is not intrinsically more dangerous than other technologies," he adds. "And, in fact, if you wanted to do harm, there are many easier ways to go about causing harm than using synthetic DNA."

Heinz says his company is being very careful. It won't sell DNA to just anyone. And the potential benefits to society, he thinks, are huge.

"We can make DNA that would be used to make a virus that could target your cancer cells. And I think it can be helpful for dealing with some of the problems that humans have created. If we can make plants that can suck more carbon out of the atmosphere, we can deal with global warming," he says.

In addition, Heinz says he thinks "in general most people want children that are healthier than they were — maybe better. I think as a race, or as a species we have a goal of improving who we are."

Already, Cambrian Genomics and other companies are scaling up their operations to meet what many expect to be a growing demand for synthetic DNA.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are companies now that print and sell DNA. As NPR's Rob Stein reports, this is fueling excitement about using DNA to do all sorts of things, and it's fueling just as many concerns.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When I first heard about DNA printing, I thought, what? I mean, I know about regular old printing and 3-D printing where they make stuff with gizmos that squirt out molten plastic, but DNA printing? To find out what that's all about, I went to San Francisco, made my way to a big old industrial building downtown and rang a doorbell on the fourth floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

AUSTIN HEINZ: Hi, I'm Austin Heinz.

STEIN: Hi, I'm Rob Stein, nice to meet you.

Austin Heinz is the CEO of a company called Cambrian Genomics.

HEINZ: We're a DNA laser printing company, so our whole business is printing DNA.

STEIN: Heinz wants to show me how he prints DNA, so he takes me to this big open room, high ceilings, huge windows; it's jammed with computer monitors, hard drives, cables, glass trays and plastic vials. There are a bunch of young guys, some wearing blue rubber gloves and holding what look like big syringes. Heinz pulls open a cabinet and points to a row of large brown bottles.

HEINZ: So these are the four chemical components of DNA. There's an A, a C, a T and a G, and they're in these four distinct bottles.

STEIN: One contraption mixes these four chemicals.

HEINZ: You run the letters A, T, C and G over these electrodes, and you can build up your strands of DNA.

STEIN: A bunch of companies have sprung up to build synthetic strands of DNA like this. It's now much easier and cheaper than ever before, and Heinz says his company is making it even cheaper by doing something different.

HEINZ: Everyone else that makes DNA makes DNA incorrectly and then tries to fix it. We don't fix it. We just see what's good, what's bad and then we use the correct pieces.

STEIN: They do that by putting chunks of DNA on tiny metal beads that glow with different colors. That lets a computer scan millions of pieces of DNA to find the right ones.

HEINZ: So we just take a picture, change the filter, take a picture, change the filter, take a picture, change the filter, take a picture, change the filter, and we read the sequences.

STEIN: It's basically a high-tech version of spellcheck, and then Cambrian prints the correct DNA by firing a computer-controlled laser at a glass tray - a glass tray holding millions of those tiny metal beads coated with DNA in just the right order.

HEINZ: The DNA laser printer is essentially a sorter. It creates an explosion on the surface of the glass that catapults the bead sequence into the collector tray.

STEIN: An explosion.

HEINZ: Yeah.

STEIN: What do you mean an explosion?

HEINZ: The laser hits the surface of the glass and creates an explosion

STEIN: Oh, really? So it's like - it really is like a tiny little explosion.

HEINZ: Yeah. It's like mini, like, hydrogen bomb going off on the surface of the glass.

STEIN: This laser printing process can produce any strand of DNA made to order. OK, so Heinz can crank out lots of DNA like this, but for what? Well, so far his main customers are drug companies. They're using the DNA to do things like genetically engineer microbes to find new medicines.

HEINZ: They may be interested in making a protein that attacks a cancer cell with some kind of killer payload.

STEIN: Others are genetically engineering plants to try to make them grow better, but Austin Heinz says that's just for starters. He sees a day when mass-produced DNA can genetically engineer people or let anyone use DNA like a computer code to design their own organisms.

HEINZ: I think some people will find the process of designing and making organisms just fun in itself.

STEIN: Does it ever strike you as kind of odd what you do? I mean, DNS is, like, the essence of life, and it's reduced to an industrial process or product in some ways. Is that - I don't know.

HEINZ: Yeah, I mean, people have been making DNA for 40 years, so I'm definitely not doing anything new. But the scale at which we're making it and the cost at which we're making it at is new. Just like when computers were a dollar per transistor, it would cost billions for a computer. And now you can make billions of transistors for a few dollars, and everyone's got one.

STEIN: But this is making some people nervous. Marcy Darnovsky is with a genetic watchdog group called the Center for Genetics and Society.

MARCY DARNOVSKY: Austin Heinz talks openly about everybody being able to create entirely novel creatures. In fact, he uses to creature as a verb, so, you know, is that what we want? Do we want anybody, including potential terrorists, to be able to create entirely novel life forms - new creatures? Do we want the teenager next door to be creating Godzilla in the bathtub? I don't want that.

STEIN: She also worries about genetically engineered plants running amok, ruining the environment. And says genetically engineered people would be even worse.

DARNOVSKY: Many of the figures in the synthetic biology field are not shy at all about embracing that prospect that we're going to use synthetic biology to redesign humanity and to engineer the traits in our children, and that I find extremely disturbing.

STEIN: But others say those kinds of fears are exaggerated. Rob Carlson is a biotech analyst.

ROB CARLSON: Like every other technology, we need to be paying attention to how it's used. It is not intrinsically more dangerous than other technologies, and in fact, if you wanted to do harm, there are many easier ways to go about causing harm than using synthetic DNA.

STEIN: Austin Heinz says he gets it. This could be dangerous stuff, but he says his company is being very careful. They won't sell DNA to just anyone, and he says the potential benefits to society are huge.

HEINZ: So much good can be done. We can make DNA that would be used to make a virus that could target your cancer cells. And I think it can be helpful for dealing with some of the problems that humans have created. If we can, like, make plants that suck more carbon out of the atmosphere, we can deal with global warming, and I think in general, most people will want children that are healthier than they were; maybe, you know, better. I mean, I think as a race or as a species we have a goal of improving who we are.

STEIN: So Cambrian Genomics and other companies are scaling up their operations to meet what many expect to be a growing demand for synthetic DNA. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station