BLACKSBURG, Va., February 20, 2009 – A recent review in Trends in Biotechnology highlights current practice and trends for the synthesis of custom-made DNA molecules. It also takes a close look at the challenges facing scientists interested in using DNA fabrication in their research projects. “The field of chemical synthesis of DNA molecules has advanced considerably over the years but some practitioners present gene synthesis as a black box where any DNA molecule can be created on demand,” said Jean Peccoud, Associate Professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and leader of synthetic biology research initiatives at the Institute.

“Our intention with this review article is to explain clearly how gene synthesis works and how a good understanding of the available technology can allow researchers to make better use of it.” He added: “The design and synthesis of DNA molecules has a lot to offer biology, but making DNA on demand with base- level precision has inherent challenges. It is particularly important to appreciate the key areas where outstanding questions remain.”
In 1970, Nobel laureate Har Gobind Khorana and his research group chemically synthesized the first gene. A five-year effort led to a 77-nucleotide synthetic copy of a yeast gene that coded for alanine tRNA, one of the key adaptor molecules needed for the transformation of information from DNA to proteins. The field of gene synthesis has since made considerable progress, culminating in the recent shift to the synthesis of larger DNA constructs. The genomes of several viruses have been chemically synthesized, including poliovirus, bacteriophage øX174, and the influenza virus responsible for the 1918 influenza pandemic, one of the deadliest disease events in history. Scientists are now turning their attention to bacteria, and the synthesis of the Mycoplasma genitalium genome in 2008 was a significant milestone.

The review published in Trends in Biotechnology combines a description of current DNA fabrication methods with a discussion of new methods intended to improve access to DNA synthesis technologies. It also highlights some of the innovative educational possibilities that may arise from gene synthesis. Said Peccoud: “Unprecedented opportunities exist to change the way biotechnology is taught. Today, the first experience of students can be making DNA instead of recovering it from biological samples. That represents a profound shift in thinking toward the acceptance of biotechnology as an engineering domain that builds DNA molecules from the ground up.” Peccoud adds: “We hope that this review will highlight many of the wider options for gene synthesis that are available to researchers and educators alike.”

The review article was published in Trends in Biotechnology: Czar MJ, Anderson JC, Bader JS, Peccoud J (2009) Gene synthesis demystified. Trends in Biotechnology 27(2): 63-72.

The featured article is available online at the following URL:

Published by Barry Whyte, February 24, 2009