In an analogous way, Amirav-Drory wants to create a graphic user interface that would empower people to manipulate the arcane logic of DNA. His new software, Genome Compiler (free and available for download at www.genomecompiler.com), converts the various parts of a DNA sequence into easy-to-understand, and easily manipulable, icons. The software turns the complex task of DNA design into an easy drag-and-drop exercise. I caught up with Amirav-Drory recently at Singularity University where he took me through a demo of the program and told me how it might be used by researchers, biology hackers, and what sorts of risks are involved in bringing genetic design into the DIY space.
Trained as a biochemist at Tel Aviv University, Amirav-Drory knows firsthand that designing and constructing the DNA tools used for experiments is labor-intensive and plagued with too many fatal errors. “I hated cloning,” he admits. “It seemed silly to me.”
As a former ‘gene jockey’ myself, I can relate.
To get a sense of the convenience that Genome Compiler could potentially offer requires a general idea of what goes into building a bit of DNA in the lab. Typically, designing an experimental piece of DNA containing the gene you’re interested in starts with manually going through the actual genetic sequence – thousands of A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s – and, if you were in my lab, using several different colored highlighters to label the important parts on pages in a three-ring binder. The next step would be to design the little stretches of DNA called ‘primers’ to run a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify your sections of interest. Then you would add enzymes to your amplified DNA to cut out those sections, and later add enzymes to paste them into the newly constructed DNA. Finally, your new little molecular masterpiece is injected into bacteria so that, as the bacteria multiply, so does your DNA. The entire process takes a few days.