Seattle biotech hub is studying ‘DNA typewriters’ with $75M funding from billionaires

Seattle biotech hub is funded $75M to study self-monitoring cells that could upend our understanding of biology. Its scientific lead Jay Shendure told TechCrunch in an interview “There’s no strict roadmap, and we’re not claiming we’re going to create a billion-dollar company at the end of this,”. “What we’re endeavoring to do is by no means guaranteed to succeed — and it wouldn’t be as exciting if it was. But we see a plausible path, and I hope at the end of five years we’re not the only ones using this technology.”

“Biology happens out of sight and over time. Think about how we measure things in biological systems in general. With microscopy or even your naked eye, you’re looking at the system, but you’re limited in what you can see. Even if we break open the tissue, we can measure the genome and the proteome, but we’re looking at a particular moment in time. If we want to look at everything a cell experiences over time, that’s something we can’t see.”

There’s a lot of research in single-cell monitoring by various methods, but most involve either taking the cell out of the system or using something invasive, like a microelectrode piercing its walls. But cells actually have a recording mechanism built right in: DNA. Recent research has shown it’s possible to use DNA and its attendant microbiological architecture as a storage medium for arbitrary information.

Shendure added that “The genome is essentially a digital entity, with A, G, T, C instead of 1 and 0. That’s useful in that we can write to it in a matter very analogous to a typewriter, and we can leverage this in principle to record information over time”. He also mentioned that “The first version was kind of like a monkey at a typewriter, punching keys randomly. Now we can make certain keys biologically conditional. And maybe the monkey knows four letters right now, but in principle that vocabulary could be a thousand.”

Shendure said that “The beauty of doing it with DNA is not only do we have something to write to, but the records you write are faithfully transmitted to the next generation of cell. And the actual devices, sensors, writers, all the components we need for our system can also be reproduced in the DNA, and the cell will build them for us,”

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