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Operon, DNA2.0 aim for bigger share of synthetic gene market
MENLO PARK, Calif.—After trying about 20 suppliers, DNA2.0 president Jeremy Minshull notes, a chance recommendation from one of his sales reps put the company on the path to a new relationship with Operon Biotechnologies Inc., that is proving to be everything both companies hoped for. Under the partnership, announced last month, Operon is providing the oligonucleotides DNA2.0 needs to synthesize genes with fewer errors and at higher speeds to meet the demands of a market the companies say is expected to double annually for the next several years. Their co-marketing agreement calls for cross-selling their core products to their respective customer bases.
Patrick Weiss, CEO of Operon, notes that almost the entire molecular biology community wants to get hold of genetic material, and that frequently this has meant waiting for expeditions to exotic locales such as the Sargasso Sea to return with unique collections. Natural proteins, however, evolved to contribute to the survival of cells, and he cites the example of protease stain removers that fail due to high temperatures in clothes washing machines. The same principal applies to many pharmaceutical formulations. "The gene synthesis process adapts proteins to perform the functions you want as opposed to what they do in nature," Weiss says.
In the past, protein engineering was done by making large libraries of protein mutants and subjecting them to screening. "We use machine learning to screen for activity you care about," Weiss states. He adds that the mathematical techniques are time-tested but not applied to synthetic gene technology until now.
A chance encounter may have been what brought the two companies together, but both Weiss and Minshull claim it was a marriage made in heaven. The two privately held companies sell their core products to "more or less the same customers," Weiss observes. He estimates that prospects worldwide number in the tens of thousands, including the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, chemical industries and academia. To effectively leverage this potential, they want to drive down the price for synthetic genes.
"When DNA2.0 opened its doors in 2003," Minshull says, "the price per base was from $5 to $12. With a typical gene comprising about 1,000 bases, you paid $5,000 to $12,000 per gene." Prices have dropped dramatically since then, averaging from less than a dollar per base upwards to about two dollars, and are now within reach of academics as well as industry-based researchers.
"With our new partnership with Operon, we're out to change the question from, 'Here's a sequence, how can I find it?' to 'I know where to order it,'" he says.