Operon, DNA2.0 aim for bigger share of synthetic gene market

Under a new partnership, Operon is providing oligonucleotides to DNA2.0 for the synthesis genes to meet the demands of a market the companies say is expected to double annually for the next several years. The co-marketing agreement calls for cross-selling their core products to their respective customer bases.

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MENLO PARK, Calif.—Aftertrying about 20 suppliers, DNA2.0 president Jeremy Minshull notes, a chancerecommendation from one of his sales reps put the company on the path to a newrelationship with Operon Biotechnologies Inc., that is proving to be everythingboth companies hoped for. Under the partnership, announced last month, Operonis providing the oligonucleotides DNA2.0 needs to synthesize genes with fewererrors and at higher speeds to meet the demands of a market the companies sayis expected to double annually for the next several years. Their co-marketingagreement calls for cross-selling their core products to their respectivecustomer bases.

Patrick Weiss, CEO of Operon, notes that almost the entiremolecular biology community wants to get hold of genetic material, and thatfrequently this has meant waiting for expeditions to exotic locales such as theSargasso Sea to return with unique collections. Naturalproteins, however, evolved to contribute to the survival of cells, and he citesthe example of protease stain removers that fail due to high temperatures inclothes washing machines. The same principal applies to many pharmaceuticalformulations. "The gene synthesis process adapts proteins to perform thefunctions you want as opposed to what they do in nature," Weiss says.

In the past, protein engineering was done by making largelibraries of protein mutants and subjecting them to screening. "We use machinelearning to screen for activity you care about," Weiss states. He adds that themathematical techniques are time-tested but not applied to synthetic genetechnology until now.

A chance encounter may have been what brought the twocompanies together, but both Weiss and Minshull claim it was a marriage made inheaven. The two privately held companies sell their core products to "more orless the same customers," Weiss observes. He estimates that prospects worldwidenumber in the tens of thousands, including the biotechnology, pharmaceutical,chemical industries and academia. To effectively leverage this potential, theywant to drive down the price for synthetic genes.

"When DNA2.0 opened its doors in 2003," Minshull says, "theprice per base was from $5 to $12. With a typical gene comprising about 1,000bases, you paid $5,000 to $12,000 per gene." Prices have dropped dramaticallysince then, averaging from less than a dollar per base upwards to about twodollars, and are now within reach of academics as well as industry-basedresearchers.

"With our new partnership with Operon, we're out to changethe question from, 'Here's a sequence, how can I find it?' to 'I know where toorder it,'" he says.

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