Thursday, June 5, 2014

Lost in translation: No, Cambrian Genomics does not "3-D print DNA"

Imagine my interest when I read this in the Wall Street Journal in an interview with an Autodesk executive, Carl Bass, about how 3-D printing was going to change manufacturing: 
WSJ: Talk a little about startups in manufacturing. 
MR. BASS: You see the ability for very small companies to compete in ways that were never imaginable before. 
I'll tell you about one company called Cambrian Genomics. They built a machine that 3-D prints DNA. 
So if you were a scientist working in a lab and needed DNA to do your experiments, you would send them a text file with the description of the base pairs, and you would send them this description and they would send you back a vial. This is real biological printing. 
This company has less than 12 employees, and has done it on raising a single-digit number of millions of dollars.
This got me interested, in the sense of "Uh, how do they do that?!" Imagine my confusion when this blog post seemed to claim (based on this Bloomberg video (about 6 minutes in)) that they were laser printing DNA:
But the new process that Cambrian Genome [sic] created speeds up that process exponentially by using laser printers to sort the DNA making it significantly quicker and more affordable. How affordable will it be? The DNA laser printer will produce more viable DNA in a single run than is produced in all of the machines in the entire world in a single year. 
I don't have the expertise to analyse those claims, but this explanation of Cambrian Genomics' technology (from Laser Focus World) makes a lot more sense to me:
To overcome that problem, Cambrian synthesizes large volumes of oligonucleotide fragments on microarrays, then uses massively parallel DNA sequencing to sort the different DNA variants and identify those with the desired sequence. Then, says Cambrian founder and CEO Austen Heinz, "we use laser catapulting, also known as laser-induced forward transfer, to eject clonal DNA populations," which were identified as having the desired sequences. The process is a variation on laser capture microdissection , which can excise part of a cell and move it to a desired location without damaging DNA. High-speed laser pulses then eject beads carrying the desired sequences in the right order to assemble into genes on a 384-well plates, as shown in the diagram.
Assuming this is an accurate explanation, it's using laser technology to sort solid-phase DNA faster. That's quite useful, but it is neither "3-D printing DNA" nor "laser printing" it. Not that anyone cares -- whatever gets the investors' juices flowing, right? 


  1. Concrete DovetailJune 10, 2014 at 10:57 AM

    One of my favorite 3D printer tales was how it will eliminate hunger because it can print food.

  2. DNA is highly compressed anyway: