Israeli start-up joins world’s first ‘mail order gene store’

US-based Twist Bioscience acquires Genome Compiler, paving the way for ‘gene hackers’ to mix and match DNA of small organisms to boost scientific innovation

Genome Compiler's mix n' match genetic material assembly interface (Courtesy)
Genome Compiler's mix n' match genetic material assembly interface (Courtesy)

Genome Compiler, the Israeli biotech start-up that brought the world glow in the dark plants, is now a part of San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience, the companies announced Wednesday.

The Israeli site, which has developed tools that allows anyone with access to a computer or a mobile device mix and match DNA to create new and interesting “creatures,” will continue to operate under its own name after the acquisition, said company founder and CEO Omri Amirav-Drory.

“Our existing customers will continue to enjoy the Genome Compiler platform on our website,” he said. As we move forward, the Genome Compiler team will be a core component in building out the integrated Twist Bioscience design-build capabilities.”

Those capabilities include developing what amounts to the world’s first “mail order” gene site, enabling Twist customers to use Genome Compiler’s tools to design made to order DNA strands, which they can use in their own labs.

“Twist specializes in high quality DNA synthesis,” and Genome Compiler will help the US firm enhance and expand that business, according to Twist Bioscience CEO Emily Leproust.

“We are delighted to bring the Genome Compiler technology, network and expert team into the Twist Bioscience organization,” she said. “They are the leader in developing software that allows design of gene sequences for synthetic and molecular biology experiments.”

There are several online sources for researchers to order custom DNA, but with the acquisition, Twist is the only one with an easy to use interface.

Twist Bioscience said that it plans to expand Genome Compiler’s Israel facilities.

“The Tel Aviv site is expected to expand in the number of software developers and biologists in the coming years, ensuring Israel will be in the forefront of synthetic biology, an emerging technology crucial for a sustainable future,” Twist said.

In business for about five years, Genome Compiler has become the go-to site for DNA “hackers” — scientists who mix and match DNA of very small and simple creatures like bacteria or microorganisms in order to develop genes that can enhance their capabilities.

The genetic technology is extremely complex, and DNA or RNA components that are not similar enough to their new host genes just get rejected – so there is little chance that a gene hacker could create, for example, a mouse that can breathe underwater.

But there are plenty of projects that will work and Genome Compiler helps users of the site’s tools figure out which ones are viable. The site’s tools allow users to take DNA and RNA from various known gene strands and virtually transplant them into other strands, creating new protein base pairs (the components that make up genes). The Genome Compiler tool checks the characteristics of the genetic material in order to determine if it can be integrated into a DNA strand – and if it can, it gets uploaded into the Genome Compiler database, where users can see what works and what doesn’t, and try to simulate the experiment themselves.

Pharmaceutical firms, for example, would use the site to determine if genetically modifying a drug could make it more effective or viable. If so, they could download the data on how to modify and gene, and try it out in their own labs.

Artist's rendition of a Glowing Plant (Courtesy)
Artist’s rendition of a Glowing Plant (Courtesy)

There are over 7 billion base pairs in the Genome Compiler database, so there are plenty of experiments out there waiting to be conducted. One that drew a lot of attention in 2013 was authored by California-based entrepreneur Anthony Evans, who went on a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create a plant that glows in the dark.

“We are using synthetic biology techniques and Genome Compiler’s software to insert bioluminescence genes into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant and member of the mustard family, to make a plant that visibly glows in the dark,” said Genome Compiler. “With our goal of one day replacing electric lighting with natural lighting, our team of scientists have leveraged the power of Genome Compiler to engineer a common plant to emit a natural glow.”

The plant, which uses genes from glow worms to add light to the plants, is still under development, according to its Kickstarter page.

Genome Compiler’s new partnership with Twist Bioscience will extend the Israeli firm’s technology to another level – from the theoretical to the practical. Twist actually synthesizes DNA, so with its new partnership with Genome Compiler, Twist customers will be able to use the software tools to create viable DNA – and order it from Twist.

“We intend to build an elegant, intuitive eCommerce solution with a deep pipeline of digital products to follow that will enable our customers to reimagine their research by providing seamless integration of the design and build of their synthetic DNA,” said Leproust, a vision that will be much more attainable as a result of its acquisition of Genome Compiler.

“By combining our advanced software design capabilities with the technology leader in DNA synthesis, our customers will be able to streamline the design-build-test cycle,” added Amirav-Drory. “We believe the synthetic and molecular biology communities will find the integrated offering a great platform to accelerate their research.”

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