By Kevin Davies
July 20, 2005 | Emerging leaders in the new discipline of synthetic biology have raised $13 million in first-round venture funding for the field’s first commercial entity — a startup company called Codon Devices. One of the company’s backers, former Sun Microsystems CEO Vinod Khosla, describes the young company as “the first commercial endeavor at the intersection of post-genome biology with high technology.”
Codon Devices was founded last year by a quartet of scientists — MIT’s Drew Endy and Joseph Jacobson, Harvard Medical School’s George Church, and University of California Berkeley’s Jay Keasling. Flagship Ventures led the series A round, along with Alloy Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Khosla.
Codon Devices — a “codon” is the term for a triplet of DNA bases — uses a proprietary BioFAB production platform to synthesize customized DNA segments ranging from thousands to millions of bases. (Traditional oligonucleotide synthesis, typically used in PCR and DNA microarray applications, requires only a few dozen bases.) Such de novo DNA sequences would constitute a genetic parts kit with potential applications in areas ranging from protein optimization and biorefineries to drug manufacture and genetic therapy.
“With the completion of the human genome sequence and many other genome projects, we now have a vast and growing list of biological parts with distinct functions,” says Noubar Afeyan, Codon Devices chairman and managing partner of Flagship Ventures. “Codon Devices’ biological engineering technologies will enable the next phase of biotechnology with more powerful tools that permit the design and fabrication of far more complex systems.”
“Our platform enables the engineering of biological systems with unprecedented precision and will lead to a number of breakthrough products serving therapeutic and industrial purposes,” says CEO and Flagship partner Samir Kaul.
This new venture in postgenome genetic engineering raises some exciting opportunities but brings with it some important practical and ethical questions, given the potential to design novel organisms utilizing genetic sequences from different species.
The company’s initial commercial focus is on providing customized genetic parts for molecular biology research such as biosensors, as well as engineered cells for the synthesis of therapeutic proteins and other chemicals. Further out, the company’s interests could embrace vaccines, agricultural products, and biorefineries for the production of industrial chemicals and energy.
One example of the near-term potential of synthetic biology is the production of a promising antimalarial drug. Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $43 million to the Institute for OneWorld Health to apply cofounder Keasling’s synthetic biology methods to produce artemisinin, a naturally occurring compound extracted from wormwood plants. Keasling’s group is identifying the key plant genes required for artemisinin synthesis, which could be stitched into bacteria to ease the drug’s manufacture greatly.
Eventually, scientists hope to stitch together combinations of gene cassettes with specific functions to design bespoke drugs and organisms. “I think if we pull it off, it changes everything to do with our interaction with the living world,” Endy says. “We’ll see if it works.”
At MIT, Endy and his colleagues have already built some 500 “biobricks” — genetic building blocks composed of short DNA segments, akin to resistors and capacitors in electronic circuits (see http://parts.mit.edu). “I want to be able to design and build biological systems to perform particular applications,” Endy told The Guardian earlier this year. “The scope of material I can work with is not limited to the set of things that we inherit from nature.”
Codon Devices is supported by a formidable pool of talent from a cross section of engineering and biological fields. Joining the Board of Directors is Alloy Ventures’ General Partner Michael Hunkapiller. “Having led one of the foremost technology suppliers to the academic and industrial biotechnology labs [Applied Biosystems], I am excited to be involved with the next transformative technology in our industry,” Hunkapiller says. “Codon Devices was an attractive investment for us because it combines breakthrough technology, strong intellectual property, large commercial markets, and a group of outstanding scientific founders.”
In addition to the four cofounders, the scientific advisory board boasts a wide range of expertise, including structural biologist David Baker (Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, University of Washington); biomedical engineer Jim Collins (Boston University); molecular geneticist Paul Modrich (Duke University); chemical engineer Christina Smolke (California Institute of Technology); and electrical engineer Ron Weiss (Princeton University).