Image: Software program screenshot
Howard Salis
This is a screenshot of computer software program designed to help companies create microbes that manufacture things such as drugs and biofuels.
By contributor
updated 7/21/2011 4:05:29 PM ET 2011-07-21T20:05:29

A computer software program is outfitting biotechnology companies with the ability to determine the genetic plans they need to engineer microorganisms for the production of products such as building materials, drugs and biofuels.

Companies routinely use microorganisms such as E. coli to manufacture products such as insulin. This has primarily been done by cutting and pasting DNA found in nature into organisms that can be grown in the lab, explained Howard Salis, a synthetic biologist at Pennsylvania State University.

"Now we are really understanding how to engineer at the genetic level how the DNA directly controls metabolic behavior and how we can tune that metabolic behavior to get more product or different types of product," he told me today.

The software program, called a DNA compiler, designs DNA sequences to control protein production inside simple organisms. The biofuels industry, for example, is interested in maximizing the amount of proteins produced to optimize metabolism.

To produce proteins, which are integral for creating and maintaining cells, an organism's DNA sequence controls the proteins that it makes and how much of each protein is produced.

"You tell the computer what is the amount of protein that the organism should make and the computer tells you the DNA sequence that will give you that amount of protein," Salis said.

While it may sound simple, he added, this process could take months of trial and error if actual protein genes are inserted into an organism. The computer does this instead, giving results that are accurate to within a factor of two, saving companies time and money.

The software is currently under license to companies for the production of various chemicals, such as methyl ethyl ketone, a substance with commerical and industrial uses including inks, paints and industrial cements. A non-commerical version is available on the Web.

More on synthetic biology:

Bright bacteria wins synthetic biology contest
One third of Americans back ban on synthetic biology
Synthetic life form grows in Florida lab
First synthetic life form holds promise, peril
It's alive! Artificial DNA controls life

John Roach is a contributing writer for

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