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feet of office and lab space in Cambridge, Massachu-
setts. But the startup, which has raised $125 million
in investments, has already formed a strategic part-
nership with the French pharmaceutical company
Sanofi. If Warp Drive Bio meets certain milestones,
it has the option to demand that Sanofi purchase
the company for $1 billion or more. The deal was
struck after Warp Drive’s principal founder, Har-
vard biochemist Gregory Verdine, was invited to
Paris last May and gave a two-hour presentation that
had Sanofi’s head of research, Elias Zerhouni, and
several other staffers crowding around his laptop.
Zerhouni, a former head of the U.S. National
Institutes of Health, immediately grasped the nov-
elty and potential of Warp Drive’s idea for sifting
through nature’s existing stockpile of DNA parts.
“We’ve been plagued by a lack of creativity,” he says.
“It made sense to give them the resources they need.”
Verdine’s insight is that nature is particularly
adept at creating chemicals that act safely and pre-
cisely on a desired biological target. He says that
half the small-molecule drugs developed over the last 30 to 35
years have been natural products or derivatives of such products.
“It struck me that probably something useful in evolution helped
tailor properties in these compounds that made them better suited
to work in complex cell systems like the human body,” he says.
“Nature seemed to have already engineered in complexities that
drug chemists don’t understand.”
I interviewed Verdine in a spare room, no bigger than a walk-in
closet, just outside Warp Drive’s lab in a converted book factory in
Cambridge. If Church and Collins are intent on creating new syn-
thetic parts and bioengineering techniques, Verdine is hoping to
use many of the same techniques to unwrap the mysteries of how
nature does it. Over the decades, he explained to me, pharmaceu-
tical researchers have collected and stored tens of thousands, and
more likely millions, of environmental samples, including dirt
and pond scum. The idea was to discover some potent chemical
in these mixtures by dripping extracts onto cancer cells or into
petri dishes of bacteria. But that process is laborious and subject
to chance. Most drug companies have scaled back such research.
The answer, Verdine decided, was to search for DNA instead.
Given the plummeting cost of DNA sequencing, it’s now feasible
to simply decode all the genetic material present in, say, a drop
of pond water teeming with microörganisms. Verdine says many
of the natural drugs that have already
been identified have similar DNA signa-
tures—clusters of genes that often occur
together in a microbe’s genome. The
trick, he adds, is to scan the samples’
DNA to locate familiar-looking clusters
that might be recipes for synthesizing
a natural product—ideally, an important one that hasn’t been
Once identified, the DNA sequences will need to be engineered
into a bacterium so that the company can produce the chemical
and study the potential drugs. This is where the synthetic-biology
techniques developed by Church will be crucial: in transforming
the code into actual compounds. “We use genomics and informat-
ics to find a gene cluster. But that’s an information unit,” Verdine
says. “We have to get the molecule. Synthetic biology involves coax-
ing the cluster into biosynthetic factories, which then produce the
molecules. If we don’t have the molecule, the cluster is useless.”
The idea of resorting to nature’s stockpile for parts, Church
says, is “ironic and interesting” given synthetic biology’s interest in
producing entirely new DNA circuits and, ultimately, generating
entire organisms from scratch. Researchers today may alter, copy,
and paste DNA with increasing ease, but they still struggle when
it comes to actually composing DNA that does anything useful.
They are still editing nature’s code and learning from it. It turns
out that for now, nature is still the best programmer.
Michael Waldholz is a former managing editor at Bloomberg News, where he over-
s aw the publication’s coverage of health and science. Previously, he was a reporter
and news editor at the Wall Street Journal. His books include Curing Cancer and
Genome, which was published in 1990.
“It struck me that probably something useful in evolution
helped tailor properties in these compounds that made them
better suited to work in complex cell systems like the human
body.” —Gregory Verdine
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