20 February 2006

Designer Genes: Wear With Pride

Medical News Today provides an intriguing report on the development of an advanced computer program from Johns Hopkins that should speed up the design and manufacture of artificial genes for genomics and proteomics research.

The program, called GeneDesign, guides the design of blueprints for DNA segments to the exacting specifications required for studying gene function and genetically engineering cells. The blueprints are then used by companies or other investigators to synthesize the gene.

....GeneDesign automates the process of determining which base pairs -- the building blocks of DNA -- should be linked together in a particular order to make a gene, according to Jef Boeke, Ph.D., professor of molecular biology and genetics and director of the High Throughput Biology Center at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. A gene codes for a specific protein, and the order of the hundreds or thousands of base pairs making up that gene determines the order of the amino acid building blocks making up that protein. Boeke is senior author of the paper.

"GeneDesign not only guides the user in designing the gene, but also automatically diagnoses design flaws in the sequence of bases making up the gene," said Boeke.

....GeneDesign consists of six modules that can be used individually or in series to automate the tasks required to design and manipulate synthetic DNA sequences. The program allows the user to start with either the sequence of the amino acid making up the protein or the bases making up the gene that codes for that protein. Then the user moves through a series of steps that guide the design of the gene and vector that will carry the gene into the cell. Users can follow the main "Design a Gene" path or use the modules individually as needed. Vectors are mobile pieces of DNA that are used to carry artificial genes into cells.

A major advantage to GeneDesign is the ability to choose specific codons that work especially well in specific organisms, Boeke said. A codon is a trio of bases in a gene that codes for a specific amino acid building block. Most amino acids are represented by more than one codon. For example, the codons GCU, GCC, GCA, GCG can each code for the amino acid alanine.

....Another advantage of the GeneDesign is ease of creating restriction sites -- places along the DNA where the gene can be cut, said Sarah M. Richardson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Genetic Medicine at Hopkins and first author of the paper. Scientists use molecular scissors called restriction enzymes to make these cuts, which allow them to do the cutting and pasting needed to put artificial genes into vectors.

"GeneDesign guides the choice of the series of base pairs where the restriction enzymes cut the DNA," Richardson said. "That lets investigators use different restriction enzymes to make cuts exactly where they want to.

Here is the link to the website for GeneDesign Beta2.0, which includes instructions for using the program's modules, and the program manual.

This is just one more tool in a long line of exciting new tools for advancing knowledge in the big three fields of the future: molecular biology (genomics, proteomics, RNA etc), nanotechnology, and information science/technology. A powerful synergy between these fields has developed which steepens the knowledge acquisition curve even more.

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