Software Company Autodesk Creates Synthetic Virus

My following article below was originally published by SERIOUS WONDER:

PhiX174 Bacteriophage Virus
PhiX174 Bacteriophage

If you’ve kept yourself updated on the growing field of synthetic biology, the name J. Craig Venter should almost always be in your list of scientists-to-know. His work in genome mapping and synthetic biology are legendary, to say the least. Through the J. Craig Venter Institute, the field of synthetic biology got its biggest break when its researchers developed the very first synthetic strain of Mycoplasma mycoides in 2010 known as JCVI-syn1.0.

Following in the footsteps of Craig Venter, software design company Autodesk have now developed their own version of synthetic “life” by developing a synthetic PhiX174 bacteriophage – a virus. This virus was originally produced by the J. Craig Venter Institute back in 2003, but with the help of Andrew Hessel – a distinguished researcher for Autodesk, working under their Bio/Nano Programmable Matter team – Autodesk was able to develop this virus in just over two weeks, whereas the Institute’s development process took 5 years.

Serious Wonder was able to get in touch with Andrew Hessel to talk more about this virus and the future implications it poses in the fields of science and technology.

Andrew Hessel - Virus ResearcherQ: Given the exciting ability of a software company to now be able to develop a virus on their own, what is the overall purpose of this synthetic PhiX174 bacteriophage?

A: The PhiX174 bacteriophage was first made synthetically in 2003 by famed genetic scientist J. Craig Venter and Nobel Prizewinner Hamilton Smith. It’s a harmless virus, except if you’re an E. coli bacterium. The purpose here was to demonstrate to people — and even to ourselves here at Autodesk — that the biotechnology tools available to almost anyone are now good enough to complete genomes at low cost. This opens the door to computer-aided DNA design and rapid prototyping of things like personalized cancer-fighting viruses or gene therapies. Tomorrow’s biotech companies could look more like nimble and innovative software companies rather than big, risk-averse big pharma giants.

Q: What tools were used in developing this synthetic virus, since it’s pretty astounding to hear Autodesk develop synthetic life?

A: Well, to be clear, a virus isn’t alive in the classical way. It’s inert unless there’s a host cell for it to infect. I tend to think of viruses as biological “apps” — small software programs. The tools used were quite simple because nature provided the design for this bacteriophage. Dr. Paul Jaschke of Stanford is an expert on this phage, and he’s made many synthetic variants. He was kind enough to provide a verified design that he knew would “boot up” and replicate if it was correctly printed. What I was evaluating with this work was the capabilities and costs of the various DNA synthesis vendors to print a small genome. A few years ago, they couldn’t do this as a routine job. Now some can.

Q: How long was the development process of said virus?

A: The verified virus design was provided. The best synthesis turnaround times were about 14 business days. The boot up of the phage genome is very fast, but it has to incubate overnight to see the plaques on a growth plate.

Q: And finally, what I’ve been wondering since first hearing about this project, what is the relation between this synthetic virus and Autodesk’s ongoing Project Cyborg?

A: Autodesk Project Cyborg is software (platform and applications) that broadly supports bio/nano design. I wanted to show that software design tools for viruses could be coupled with DNA printing services to do rapid and inexpensive virus prototyping. This was just a proof of capability — putting all the pieces together as a demonstration. With further development, it could allow doctors to quickly design and print a personalized cancer medicine, a vaccine, or a gene therapy — while also ensuring that regulators and authorities are appropriately notified.


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