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By Jonathan Knight in San Francisco THE cost of analysing the activity of thousands of genes simultaneously is about to plummet. Blueprints for a robot capable of arranging thousands of tiny spots of DNA on a single glass slide are being posted on the Internet. Researchers at the Californian laboratory that spawned the robot say they were forced to act because the company to which they licensed the technology refused to sell the machines, preferring to market completed slides that are out of the price range of academic scientists. The researchers’ move is symptomatic of a tide of complaints from biologists that companies are restricting access to vital research tools (This Week, 16 May, p 20). A microarray consists of up to 10 000 spots, each containing DNA from a different gene, packed into an area of less than four square centimetres. By extracting the messenger RNA from a sample of tissue, using this as a template to create the corresponding DNA, and then seeing which spots on the slide these sequences bind to, biologists can work out which genes are active in the tissue sample (New Scientist, Science, 28 October 1995, p 18). Pat Brown, Dari Shalon and colleagues at Stanford University engineered a robot to print microarrays in 1995. Soon after, the university granted an exclusive licence to Syteni, a company founded by Shalon, to commercialise the microarrayer technology. But Synteni does not manufacture arrayers for sale. Instead, it markets completed microarrays at around $7500 each. “We decided not to be an instrumentation company,” says Deval Lashkari, one of Synteni’s scientists. These prices are out of the reach of academics, says Joseph DeRisi, a researcher in Brown’s lab. Experiments may require many repetitions to produce a clear result, and each needs a new array. “People don’t want to do just a few repetitions,” DeRisi says. “They want to do a hundred.” So DeRisi, with Brown’s backing, is putting a guide to building a microarrayer on the lab’s website. The machine is relatively easy to make, and the parts cost around $25 000. “You can build one in your own garage,” says DeRisi. The site has already received thousands of visitors. Neurobiologist Tito Serafini and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley plan to build two arrayers. “Having your own gives you the maximal flexibility,” says Serafini. Roger Brent, associate director of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, says: “This really helps level the playing field.” Synteni’s licence only excludes other companies from using the technology, so it can do nothing to stop university researchers building their own machines. But Lashkari is not expecting a major loss of revenue, as most of Synteni’s customers are drugs and biotech companies who prefer to let Synteni perform the analysis, a service included in the price of the array. Shalon says the arrays are expensive because the company must recover the millions it has invested in improving the technology. For example, Synteni can put 10 000 genes on a single slide, about 4000 more than the machine described on the Web. Brown and DeRisi “underestimate what it takes to commercialise a technology”,
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