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Great science: virtual AGBT and ABRF meetings highlight COVID-19 and more

March 17, 2021

The Codex DNA team loves to get its geek on. For the past year, we’ve missed in-person conferences, but virtual events still let us get up to speed on some of the latest advances in the scientific community. Most recently, we snuck away from the lab to check in on two of our favorite conferences — Advances in Genome Biology & Technology and the annual meeting of the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities.

AGBT has long been a tech-heavy conference. This year, we were most interested in the talks focusing on genome engineering and COVID-19.

In one such talk, Jef Boeke from New York University gave a fascinating presentation he called “Tormenting Genomes 101” about his Sc2.0 project, which aims to recode and produce a completely synthetic yeast genome from oligos. His international team of collaborators is deleting, relocating, adding, and streamlining the genome in an effort to enhance its stability. Starting from 75-mer oligos and working their way up, the team is well on its way to producing a genome consisting of just two chromosomes that yield a markedly different 3D structure, even though the transcriptome and chromosomal stability look like the wild type strain. According to Boeke, their extensive DNA synthesis work has led to the ability to produce 100-kb constructs fairly easily.

Meanwhile, Neville Sanjana at the New York Genome Center reported on using pooled CRISPR screens to study host dependency for SARS-CoV-2 infection. Noting that short RNAs are easy to produce with gene synthesis, he said his team prints out many options for gene knockout and loss-of-function polymorphisms. In one project, his team used a pooled CRISPR approach to knock out each of our 20,000 genes in cells, and then challenged those cells with the SARS-CoV-2 virus to determine which host genes are most important for infection. They analyzed the top hits and matched them against available medications, finding that a widely used blood pressure drug called amlodipine has strong anti-infection activity against SARS-CoV-2. This exciting discovery could lead the way to a new treatment for patients with COVID-19.

As one might anticipate, COVID-19 was a popular topic at AGBT, with several speakers offering updates on how their countries are contributing to the effort to generate as many genome sequences as possible from isolates found in patients. We really enjoyed hearing from the University of Sydney’s Eddie Holmes, who publicly shared the very first SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence produced by scientists in China. That January 11 deposit to a public virology database enabled development of diagnostics and vaccines that are now rolling out around the world. Their work served as the foundation for the synthetic SARS-CoV-2 genome we built and made available to the research community to allow many labs to study it safely. Since that time, we’ve made a number of other synthetic SARS-CoV-2 genomes available as well.

Over at the ABRF conference, we were pleased as always to see the quality-focused core lab community also reporting on a range of recent developments. COVID-19 showed up here, too, with core facilities describing their responses to the pandemic. With our own commitment to rigor and reproducibility in automated DNA synthesis, we feel a particular kinship with the core lab community and its impressive drive to ensure the most reliable and accurate results across all technology platforms and applications.

Until that time, we are thankful that these virtual meetings allow us all to continue showcasing some truly great science.

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