INEXPENSIVE, MASS-PRODUCED GENES CORE
OF SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY ADVANCES AT UH
Professor Xiaolian Gao’s Research Unlocks Potential
for New Medications, Vaccines and Diagnostics
HOUSTON, Dec. 22, 2004 – Devices the size of a pager now
have greater capabilities than computers that once occupied an entire
room. Similar advances are being made in the emerging field of synthetic
biology at the University of Houston, now allowing researchers to
inexpensively program the chemical synthesis of entire genes on
a single microchip.
Xiaolian Gao, a professor in the department of biology and biochemistry
at UH, works at the leading edge of this field. Her recent findings
on how to mass produce multiple genes on a single chip are described
in a paper titled “Accurate multiplex gene synthesis from
programmable DNA microchips,” appearing in the current issue
of Nature, the weekly scientific journal for biological and physical
“Synthetic genes are like a box of Lego building blocks,”
Gao said. “Their organization is very complex, even in simple
organisms. By making programmed synthesis of genes economical, we
can provide more efficient tools to aid the efforts of researchers
to understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate biological
systems. There are many potential biochemical and biomedical applications.”
Most immediately, examples include understanding the regulation
of gene function. Down the road, these efforts will improve health
care, medicine and the environment at a fundamental level.
Using current methods, programmed synthesis of a typical gene costs
thousands of dollars. Thus, the prospect of creating the most primitive
of living organisms, which requires synthesis of several thousand
genes, would be prohibitive, costing millions of dollars and years
of time. The system developed by Gao and her partners employs digital
technology similar to that used in making computer chips and thereby
reduces cost and time factors drastically. Gao’s group estimates
that the new technology will be about one hundred times more cost-
and time-efficient than current technologies.
With this discovery, Gao and her colleagues have developed a technology
with the potential to make complete functioning organisms that can
produce energy, neutralize toxins and make drugs and artificial
genes that could eventually be used in gene therapy procedures.
Gene therapy is a promising approach to the treatment of genetic
disorders, debilitating neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s
and endocrine disorders such as diabetes. This technology may therefore
yield profound benefits for human health and quality of life.
“The technology developed by Dr. Gao and her collaborators
has the potential to make research that many of us could only dream
about both plausible and cost effective,” said Stuart Dryer,
chair of the department of biology and biochemistry at UH. “In
my own research on neurological diseases, we’ve often wished
we could rapidly synthesize many variations of large naturally occurring
genes. The costs of current technology have prevented us from doing
this, but Dr. Gao’s research will break down that barrier.”
This technology offers tremendous potential benefits, as synthetic
genes could allow for development and production of safer, less
toxic proteins that are currently used in disease treatment. It
also could allow for production of large molecules that do not occur
naturally, but that are needed for new generations of vaccines and
therapeutic agents, including vaccines for HIV and other viral diseases.
This technology also will facilitate development of new medications
through the creation of humanized yet synthetic antibodies that
could be especially useful in detection and treatment of infectious
organisms that could be used by terrorists.
Gao’s co-authors include Erdogan Gulari and Xiaochuan Zhou
from the University of Michigan and George Church of Harvard University.
Gao, Gulari and Zhou are partners in Atactic Technologies, a company
that produces and markets products for life sciences research. Atactic
Technologies currently holds the license to this breakthrough technology,
called picoarray gene synthesis. UH and the University of Michigan
are co-holders of the patents to these DNA microchip technologies.
Prior to coming to UH in 1992, Gao was a senior investigator at
Glaxo Research Laboratory and received her postdoctoral training
at Columbia University, her doctorate from Rutgers University and
bachelor of science from the Beijing Institute of Chemical Technology.
She is an expert in nucleic acid chemistry, biomolecular nuclear
magnetic resonance technology, structural biological chemistry and
combinatorial chemistry. Research in her lab involves the interface
of chemistry and biological sciences. Holding patents in biochip
technologies, Gao is currently focusing on understanding the relationships
of function and structure of complex genomes of humans and other
species. Gao’s research has been funded by the National Institutes
of Health, the Welch Foundation, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating
Board, the National Foundation for Cancer Research, the Merck Genomic
Research Institute and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas’ premier metropolitan research
and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers
and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate,
civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university
in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and
service with more than 35,000 students.
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