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Cell Engineering Company Launches, Raises $4.7 Million

DNA puzzle

(Arek Socha, Pixabay)

20 December 2017. A company designing biological circuits with techniques derived from computer-assisted design like those used in semiconductors is starting up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Asimov Inc., spun-off from labs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University, is raising $4.7 million in seed funds from investors led by venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz.

Asimov is developing genetic circuits from DNA sequences that encode new types of cellular functions. The company is applying principles of computer-aided design from electronic circuitry developed in the labs of bioengineering and synthetic biology professors Christopher Voigt at MIT and Douglas Densmore at Boston University. Voigt and Densmore are co-founders of Asimov, along with recent Ph.D. graduates Alec Nielsen, the company’s CEO, and Raja Srinivas.

At Voigt’s lab at MIT, Nielsen developed a cellular circuitry design platform called Cello, short for cell logic, based on a commercial electronic circuitry description language. In an April 2016 paper in the journal Science, Nielsen and colleagues describe Cello and demonstrate the design and production of 60 circuits for E. coli bacteria. The circuits used a library of Boolean logic gates designed in Cello, then expressed as DNA sequences in genetic code that transcribe into RNA nucleic acids sending instructions to cells. In tests of the 60 circuits, 45 performed correctly, with 92 percent of the 412 output states functioning as predicted.

Asimov plans to apply these biological concepts and techniques to the design of customized circuits for biotechnology applications in health care, agriculture, manufacturing, and consumer goods. The company says its technology platform is designed for modular development of biological circuits, which allow for their simulation and testing to avoid adverse responses by the larger organism.  Asimov says the industrial form of the design software used by the company combines synthetic biology, biophysical simulations, and machine learning-based design.

Nielsen says in a company statement that Asimov believes it can tackle the technical challenge of engineering biological circuits. “Solving that problem,” says Nielsen, “would unlock advanced biotechnologies that seem like science fiction: intelligent therapeutics that sense and respond to disease, molecular assembly lines for biomanufacturing, and living materials that heal and adapt to their environment.”

Vijay Pande, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, says in a blog post that biological circuitry design is still in its early stages, noting “there are many initial applications where this technology can make major advances, much like how early microprocessors, as simple as they were, became a dramatically enabling technology.” Andreessen Horowitz led the seed funding round for Asimov, with participation by venture investors Data Collective, Pillar, and AME Cloud Ventures.

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