Scientists are mining the DNA-sequence data from mushrooms and mold to find new drugs
Maureen Hillenmeyer doesn’t know exactly what’s growing in her incubators, but she has high hopes. The rectangular plates in the backroom of Hexagon Bio are heated to 86F and filled with yeasts unlike any other. The fungal microorganisms have been painstakingly outfitted with custom- printed DNA parts that give ordinary baker’s yeast the capacity to make new compounds that could potentially cure disease. “When we know it’s making a molecule, then we go in and say, ‘Is that molecule doing something interesting to cancer cells?’ ” says Hillenmeyer, co-founder and chief executive officer of Hexagon, based in Menlo Park, Calif. “That’s the real field testing.”
The company’s approach to drug discovery is half computation, half biology. A team of data scientists uses proprietary algorithms to mine a trove of data extracted from the DNA sequences of more than 2,000 species of mushrooms and molds, known as the fungal genome. Hexagon then predicts which strings of DNA, or gene clusters, are most likely to produce specific types of chemical compounds. If all goes according to plan, the yeasts will generate about 100 compounds that are particularly lethal to certain types of cells and proteins, making them the sturdy foundations of new treatments for infectious diseases and cancer. As Hillenmeyer walks through an adjacent lab, she leans over to check on Anton— the robot that handles the liquid DNA—and notices an acrid aroma, one of the few signs of the process. “It’s a little fragrant today,” she says.
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