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High-Flying Innovation

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Unconventional inspiration for DNA synthesis

Ready access at realistic cost to short DNA strands is crucial to many areas of scientific investigation. Turning to aerospace for inspiration, Eurofins made a vital ingredient more affordable and, in doing so, helped enable huge numbers of scientists elsewhere continue with valuable research.

Nucleotides are the building blocks of life, and a form of these – oligonucleotides (or oligos) – are short, synthesised DNA strands required by scientists for almost all polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based research. PCR sees stretches of synthesised DNA (oligo synthesis) amplified by creating a number of identical or near-identical copies and is used in a huge set of basic and applied research applications, across all areas of life science and a whole range of genomic investigations. In most cases, the synthesised oligos are used to determine whether a searched-for DNA sequence is present in a product or biological system.

The uses for oligos are broad but, when Eurofins was founded in the 1980s, oligos’ high price rendered these critical research materials unobtainable for all but the most well-funded scientists. Eurofins Genomics US developed an innovative new platform enabling the production of oligos at an attractive price-point, essentially democratising DNA and making oligos available to everyone for research.

Since that time, there have been many different iterations and advancements in synthesis technology, culminating in a further developmental leap in 2017. A major shortcoming of oligo synthesisers was their wear and the frequency of breakdowns with associated down-time. Here, Eurofins Genomics US turned to an unlikely field for the model – aerospace engineering ̶   completely rethinking the DNA manufacturing process and, once again, succeeding in reshaping the marketplace.

Building a DNA synthesiser to manufacture these oligos is almost like building a small jet engine – both utilise the science of air pressure, air flow, vibration, fluidics, and thermodynamics, inside complex, mechanical engineering. But it was the adoption of aerospace engineering’s reaction to downtime – the sector considers it unthinkable – that facilitated the greatest step-change.

To engineer its next generation DNA synthesiser, Eurofins Genomics US partnered with a commercial-grade, aerospace engineering company. The result was the production of high-quality oligos in a shorter time. Also, owing to the incredible power and speed of the machine, the Eurofins team raised the ceiling on scalability and volume, its innovative design making the production of even extremely small volumes of DNA affordable.

Not only has this new device filled a critical gap in today’s synthesis environment, but the advancement has the potential to help fuel deeper investigations in the biological sphere, revealing important new insights and ushering in a new era of research and scientific progress. 

The science behind

Scientists who buy oligos demand several conditions: high quality and reliability, rapid turnaround time, low cost, and the right quantity. Unfortunately, previous DNA synthesis technologies failed to accomplish all of these at once. Traditional high-throughput oligonucleotide synthesisers use a lot of reagents and make more DNA than that required in most applications. By contrast, emerging microarray or chip based methods generate too little DNA that, besides requiring additional downstream work before being useful, is only suitable for specific applications, predominantly, gene synthesis.