Want to make DNA from scratch? Just take drops of each of the four bases of a DNA molecule, mix them up in the lab-standard 96-well plate, and voilà! Okay, the process isn’t quite that simple. But scientists have been stitching DNA together from these four bases for decades, and they’ve gotten pretty good at synthesizing gene strands that can be used in a variety of ways, from developing drugs to making eco-friendly microfuels.
Companies that rely on synthetic DNA in their development and manufacturing processes purchase these materials from a few specialized firms. Those purchases can be costly, meaning a company’s grand ideas can be grounded by limited budgets. San Francisco–based Twist Bioscience is reinventing this process with its proprietary approach to creating synthetic DNA. “The innovation of Twist is that we’ve miniaturized that chemistry,” says co-founder and CEO Emily Leproust. “On the same surface area that normally makes 96 pieces of DNA, we can make 1 million pieces of DNA using semiconductor technology on silicon chips. And, we have the hardware, software, biosecurity, and commercial infrastructure to do that at unprecedented scale.”
Twist believes this high-tech creation of synthetic DNA will stretch research budgets farther and give scientists more tools to create breakthrough innovations, with less impact on the environment. It’s the kind of creative approach that earned Twist Bioscience a spot on this year’s list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies.
SMALLER IS BETTER
The miniaturization process can give researchers access to a huge volume of DNA material to work with—and each piece of DNA Twist sells to researchers and labs is two to three times cheaper. That means more ability to experiment, to fail, and to try again. “If you’re discovering a new drug, it gives you more shots on goal,” Leproust says. “You have to try a billion different things to find one drug. It’s a numbers game.”
Healthcare is a key plank in Twist’s strategic platform. The company’s technology played a crucial role in developing diagnostic tests for COVID-19, and one university bought thousands of genes to jumpstart their search for a COVID-19 therapy. “They found six drugs that are now in clinical trials against COVID,” Leproust says.
The appealing economics of Twist’s DNA offerings also makes it easier for researchers outside of deep-pocketed biotech firms to explore use cases for synthetic DNA. Take data storage: Nature uses DNA to store information, so DNA synthesis can be thought of as data writing—a technology Netflix recently used to store an episode of one of its original series. DNA also is being used in the agriculture industry to find new ways to deliver nitrogen directly to plants and minimize the use of harmful fertilizers. And in the fashion world, companies are using DNA to modify E. coli bacteria to create a blue dye for jeans that is more eco-friendly than indigo dyes.
From new approaches to pest control to innovative hangover remedies, DNA is playing an increasingly critical role in enabling scientific breakthroughs. Twist’s groundbreaking technology is helping researchers and scientists expand their ideas of what’s possible. “It’s our customers who have all of these ideas— we’re just the enablers,” Leproust says. “We make it easy; we make it fast; and we make it inexpensive. We enable them to do more science.”