Devices the size of a pager now have greater capabilities than computers that once occupied an entire room. Similar advances are being made in the emerging field of synthetic biology at the University of Houston, now allowing researchers to inexpensively program the chemical synthesis of entire genes on a single microchip.
Xiaolian Gao, a professor in the department of biology and biochemistry at UH, works at the leading edge of this field. Her recent findings on how to mass produce multiple genes on a single chip are described in a paper titled "Accurate multiplex gene synthesis from programmable DNA microchips," appearing in the current issue of Nature, the weekly scientific journal for biological and physical sciences research.
"Synthetic genes are like a box of Lego building blocks," Gao said. "Their organization is very complex, even in simple organisms. By making programmed synthesis of genes economical, we can provide more efficient tools to aid the efforts of researchers to understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate biological systems. There are many potential biochemical and biomedical applications."
Most immediately, examples include understanding the regulation of gene function. Down the road, these efforts will improve health care, medicine and the environment at a fundamental level.
Using current methods, programmed synthesis of a typical gene costs thousands of dollars. Thus, the prospect of creating the most primitive of living organisms, which requires synthesis of several thousand genes, would be prohibitive, costing millions of dollars and years of time. The system developed by Gao and her partners employs digital technology similar to that used in making computer chips and thereby reduces cost and time factors drastically. Gao's group estimates that the new technology will be about one hundred times more cost- and time-efficient than current technologies.
With this discovery, Gao and her colleagues have developed a technology with the potential to make complete functioning organisms that can produce energy, neutralize toxins and make drugs and artificial genes that could eventually be used in gene therapy procedures. Gene therapy is a promising approach to the treatment of genetic disorders, debilitating neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and endocrine disorders such as diabetes. This technology may therefore yield profound benefits for human health and quality of life.
"The technology developed by Dr. Gao and her collaborators has the potential to make research that many of us could only dream about both plausible and cost effective," said Stuart Dryer, chair of the department of biology and biochemistry at UH. "In my own research on neurological diseases, we've often wished we could rapidly synthesize many variations of large naturally occurring genes. The costs of current technology have prevented us from doing this, but Dr. Gao's research will break down that barrier."