Designer Genes: Integrated DNA Technologies Offers Made-to-Order DNA Oligos

PC-based control platform reduces cost by $4,500 per system; smaller machine footprint effectively doubles system throughput

By Josh Olson, Beckhoff Automation

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Consumers have grown quite accustomed to having the ability to customize the products they buy, from clothing to cell phone cases, to interior lighting and more. This made-to-order trend is not limited to the consumer space, however. Even biotech research organizations are utilizing highly custom synthetic genetic material to advance discovery. This type of research represents the upper echelons of scientific progress in the pharmaceutical, agricultural, academic, and other life science markets. Genetic study analyzes the basic elements of life, allowing scientists to understand biological processes and make discoveries that protect our world.

Genetic research requires synthetic nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, unique to each application. Research scientists use custom-made DNA sequences of various lengths and with unique modifications to drive genetic discovery. These custom manufactured nucleic acid sequences, or oligonucleotides, are often referred to as "oligos."

Oligos are typically short, single-stranded, synthetic DNA or RNA molecules that provide the basic tools for molecular biology research and forensics. Oligos are chemically manufactured through a process called solid-phase synthesis.

The incredible variation inherent in research requires this type of customization, often with very specific composition and on a tight timeline. Integrated DNA Technologies, based in Coralville, Iowa, fills this niche in the market, providing these customized molecular biology products for diverse application areas. From manufacturing facilities in Iowa, California, Belgium and Singapore, IDT delivers custom oligos to a global customer base, offering the highest quality and broadest product selection to ever-expanding research markets.

A manual process in the past, synthesis is now automated, much as a result of advances in robotics, computer processing and monitoring. These efforts to make their manufacturing processes faster, more precise and more efficient led to IDT's creation of the M1 DNA Synthesizer, the company's newest oligo manufacturing machine. The M1 offers a streamlined, flexible platform for custom DNA synthesis, facilitating significantly faster changeover of materials in the process. In particular, the M1 makes it easier to offer customers a wider array of options, increasing support of non-standard products, as switching time for materials has been drastically reduced with the new design.

An important factor in the effectiveness and flexibility of the M1 is the use of PC-based control and EtherCAT solutions. A product platform from Beckhoff provides a solid technological foundation for this next-gen DNA Synthesizer.

IDT is the largest manufacturer of custom oligo products in the world. For more than 25 years, the company has manufactured and supplied oligos for molecular biology research. Approximately 44,000 individual nucleic acid sequences leave company facilities each day, shipped worldwide to the company's 82,000-plus global customers. Each sequence is custom manufactured to the exact requirements of the customer, as Dan Brock, IDT Senior Scientist, explains: "Genetic research applications come with an inherent level of complexity in the types of oligos needed. Every one of the 44,000 sequences IDT manufactures each day is specifically tailored to the needs of the customer. Much like a snowflake, each DNA sequence we create is unique. We aspire to create each one with the highest level of quality, while efficiently getting them to our customers for their immediate use."

IDT has refined the process to an incredibly streamlined series of steps, enabling the company to receive orders as late as 1 p.m. local time and have the oligos in the hands of the customer the next morning. With this level of production volume and manufacturing speed, maintaining customer service and quality is of utmost importance. Owen Piette, Lead Automation Engineer, adds that "one of the biggest differentiators for IDT is that we do quality control on every oligo that we synthesize, which we refer to as "100 percent" QC. Our customers deserve this level of effort, and this is reflected in their experiences collaborating with IDT."

When it comes to the size or composition of a customer-requested oligo, IDT does not like to say no. Customers have an almost limitless number of options to choose from when ordering their synthetic nucleic acids.

"We work hard to provide exactly what our customers want; we look forward to the unusual, the new, and the exciting," says Brock. "If someone wants a particular product, standard or not, we'll work it out and, in almost every single case, make it happen."

As customer demands continue to grow and change, IDT has remained up to the task, continuing to offer new and exciting products. For example, the company's landmark Ultramer synthesis platform allows IDT to manufacture the longest oligonucleotides available on the market. This ability to synthesize long oligos has facilitated groundbreaking products, equipping their customers to push the limits of research farther than ever before.

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