Genomics company unveils ‘revolutionary’ DNA maker

DNA structure

DNA structure

The Louisville-based unit of a European bioanalytical testing company has spent millions of dollars to create a big industrial machine that makes the tiniest of biological building blocks.

Eurofins Genomics USA this week received a delivery that was six years in the making: a new DNA synthesizer, which uses a chemical process to make DNA molecules.

A Eurofins scientist told IL that the new machine could revolutionize the industry and, because of its lower cost, would benefit researchers across the country as they developed drought-resistant crops, new antibiotics or cures for deadly diseases.

DNA contains the biological instructions that make each species unique. It is made of chemical building blocks called nucleotides, which, in turn, are made of three parts. Those include a phosphate group,  a sugar group and one of four types of nitrogen bases, which are adenine (A), cytosene (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). The sequence of the bases determines what biological instructions are contained in a strand of DNA. For example, AGCTTA might produce black hair, while AGCTTC might produce brown hair.

The complete DNA instruction book, or genome, for a human contains about three billion bases.

DNA manufacturing

A large portion of the company’s business comes from researchers working in genomics. Customers typically send Eurofins the DNA sequence on which they are working, and Eurofins manufactures the DNA and sends it to the customers so that they can test, for example, whether a certain DNA sequence in the corn genome might increase its insect resistance.

The researchers might know that a particular gene contains information for a particular trait, and they might make changes to that gene and test it to determine if the changes they’ve implemented produces the improvements they were targeting, said Jeff Nelson, head of process development for high-throughput synthesis at Eurofins Genomics.

Most of the time, the company does not know what type of DNA it is manufacturing — whether human, soybean or beluga whale. Eurofins simply uses the building blocks, A, C, G and T to build the DNA chain that the customers, including academic institutions and biotech startups, request.

The exterior and interior of Eurofins' Louisville lab. | Courtesy of Eurofins.

The exterior and interior of Eurofins’ Louisville lab. | Courtesy of Eurofins.

Nelson, who was involved in the making of the new DNA synthesizer from the very beginning, said one of the advantages of Eurofins’s new machine is that it allows the company to manufacture smaller amounts of DNA. Traditional DNA synthesizers produce DNA at a far greater amount than researchers require, which meant the researchers have had to buy more than they need.

Jeff Nelson

Jeff Nelson

Nelson said that while traditional DNA synthesis methods generally produce at least 25 nanomoles of DNA, Eurofins’s new machine will produce about 1/6th of that amount. A mole is a unit of measurement for substances. A nanomole is 1 billion moles.

The ability to produce smaller amounts lowers production costs for Eurofins and prices for customers, said James Corne, director of marketing for Eurofins Genomics. For proprietary reasons, he declined to provide details about pricing.

Until now, the scientific community, which is working within tight budgets and dealing with government funding cutbacks, has had to waste a lot of money on DNA purchases, because the bulk of their orders have gone to waste, Corne said.

Enabling researchers to buy smaller amounts will free up money for other projects that they have had to push back because of funding concerns, he said.

Corne said Eurofins has high expectations that its new DNA synthesizer will revolutionize the industry and allow for faster scientific progress.

The Eurofins DNA synthesizer also can produce 10 times the number of oligos — synthetic molecular DNA chains — as did prior machines — and it can deliver a higher quality of DNA (meaning with fewer errors) and provide a greater variety of DNA strands in the same production run, as compared to other types of DNA synthesizers. A production run typically takes several hours.

Eurofins officials did not want to provide information about financials or customers, citing the highly competitive industry.

Toughness

A mockup of Eurofins' new DNA synthesizer. The company would not allow photography of the machine as it was still being assembled in the Louisville lab. | Courtesy of Eurofins.

A mockup of Eurofins’s new DNA synthesizer. The company would not allow photography of the machine as it was still being assembled in the Louisville lab. | Courtesy of Eurofins.

Corne said the company’s new flagship DNA maker also differs from others because of its size and toughness.

The device is about 8 feet wide and almost 6 feet tall, or about three times as big as traditional DNA synthesizers.

To increase the synthesizer’s durability — and decrease the likelihood of costly downtime — the company partnered with aerospace engineers.

Laboratory equipment generally tends to suffer from significant downtime, because it contains delicate equipment that is crammed in small housings, Corne said. The same goes for DNA synthesizers, which involve software and hardware, including lots of tubes and valves, and deal with chemical processes and microfluidics, or the manipulation of fluids on a very small scale, which means a lot of things can go wrong.

Eurofins wanted to build a DNA synthesizer that combined sophistication without sacrificing toughness.

“We want it fast and we want it like a tank,” Nelson said.

Corne said that Eurofins decided to partner with an aerospace engineering company to build the new synthesizer, because of the industry’s track record on reliability. He said he could not reveal the company’s name, but said its employees worked on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

In March, Eurofins moved into its new $12.4 million, 66,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Louisville lab, near the interchange of Interstates 64 and 265, in the East End. The lab employs about 100, who on average earn about $27 per hour, or about $56,000 annually. The state approved up to $2.55 million in tax incentives for the investments, and the company plans to add 30 jobs in the next five years.

Nelson said that after having been involved with the new DNA synthesizer for six years, seeing the machine manufacture its first oligos marked an exciting milestone for him and the company.

“It’s pretty satisfying,” he said this week, sitting in a conference room across from the company’s genomics labs, where, behind a row of windows, employees in white coats and gloves were operating high-tech equipment.

The machine was built on the West Coast, but is being reassembled in Louisville this week.

Beta testers have said they’ve been pleased with the quality of the product, Nelson said, and he hopes the new synthesizer will enable Eurofins to land more business, to grab a bigger share of the market and to help researchers achieve more scientific breakthroughs.