DAVID WAHLBERG Lee Journals
MADISON – At the west end of University Research Park on Madison’s west side, workers are brewing a potion with a powerful purpose.
Their flasks and tanks resemble those of breweries, but these workers don’t ferment yeast to make beer. They are using harmless strains of E. coli bacteria to develop enzymes for genome sequencing.
San Diego-based Illumina has a significant share of the global DNA sequencing market, and the company’s manufacturing center in Madison manufactures enzymes – proteins that speed up chemical reactions – to power its sequencing machines. . With 180 employees, the hub also produces what are called “library preps,” or kits to prepare blood or saliva samples for sequencing.
“We produce all the reagents and tools for everything the company does,” said Bill Checovich, general manager of Illumina’s Madison campus.
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In 2011, Illumina purchased Epicenter Biotechnologies, a Madison company founded in 1987. Epicenter developed a technology, called Nextera, to simplify and speed up sample preparation for DNA sequencing, which is now part of the products of Illuminate.
In a building that opened in 2019 on Genomic Drive, workers make about 40 different enzymes. They trick E. coli cells into producing the desired proteins and purify the mixtures by passing them through centrifuges, filters and columns.
In the fermentation room, equipped with a 1,000 liter tank, a caramel-colored liquid containing glucose and other ingredients feeds the E.coli cells. “The more cells you have that are expressing the enzyme, the more enzyme you have when you go to crack open the cells and purify them,” said Carolyn Pettersson, associate director of manufacturing operations.
Genome sequencing conducted through efforts such as Project Baby Bear in California and BabySeq in Boston used Illumina sequencers, said Julia Ortega, the company’s director of scientific research. The DNA sequencing lab at the UW-Madison Biotechnology Center also has Illumina machines.
A study conducted by Illumina involved 354 infants with suspected genetic conditions in five neonatal intensive care units in five states. Half of the patients had whole genome sequencing within 15 days of admission and the other half got it within 60 days.
In both groups, sequencing doubled the proportion of babies who received accurate diagnoses that changed their care, researchers reported in September in JAMA Pediatrics.
“It really shows the power of the genome to provide a single test that can replace multiple tests that could be done and hopefully diagnose children earlier,” Ortega said.