From Harry Glorikian’s MoneyBall Medicine series:
This week Harry speaks with Richard Fox, a computational biologist whose work at two life sciences startups, Inscripta and Infinome, is helping to automate and vastly scale up the process of engineering an organism’s genome to evoke new functions or uncover important genetic pathways.
With the discovery of the genetic scissors known as CRISPR-Cas9 in 2012, biologists gained the ability to make precise cuts in the genes of almost any organism. For genetic engineers, what used to be a slow, labor-intensive, manual process was suddenly easy. It was like jumping from a medieval monastery where all the monks write their manuscripts longhand into a world where everyone has a word processor on their desktop. But the first generation of CRISPR technology was still pretty limited. To continue with the word processing metaphor: you could use CRISPR to change individual letters in a text, but you couldn’t use it to modify entire words, sentences, or paragraphs.
At Inscripta, Fox helped to turn CRISPR into a fully-featured editing program. The company sells an automated device that can take bacteria or yeast cells and make thousands of programmed edits to different parts of their genomes in parallel. For researchers, a tool like that can vastly speed up the process of figuring out the relationship between an organism’s genotype and its phenotype. And that can help bioengineers create useful new strains of microorganisms—or uncover the genetic pathways that lead to disease in higher organisms like plants and humans.
And now Fox has left Inscripta to start a new synthetic biology company called Infinome. It’s a service provider that works with customers to design new types of organisms through directed evolution. The idea is to take Inscripta’s technology and add the power of data science and machine learning to speed up what Fox calls the “design, built, test, learn” cycle to create better custom organisms faster. The implications are mind-boggling—but in this episode, Fox walks through the ideas step by step.