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Can Science Ever Manipulate Evolution?

By James Donahue

Back in 1997 Dr. Alejandro Zaffaroni, Dr. Willem Stemmer, Dr. Russell Howard and Isaac Stein collaborated to found a research company called Maxygen. This company, located in Redwood City, California, has successfully used a system of molecular breeding to create evolutionary alterations that the founders say has a potential commercial application in agriculture, veterinary medicine, enzyme/chemical processes and human therapeutics.

From this initial company, Zaffaroni has founded spin-off companies that include ALZA Corporation, DNAX Research Institute, Affymax, Affymetrix Symyx Technologies and Alexza, all active in the commercial development of discoveries made within the confines of Maxygen.

So how can we best explain the research that has gone on within the walls of Maxygen? One description, offered by Wikipedia, said researchers “exploited proprietary recombined-based technologies for creating genetic diversity, known as its Molecular Breeding directed evolution platform.” We suppose it would take a genetic researcher or perhaps a rocket scientist to understand just what that means.

The article went on to explain that the technologies brought about “the generation of millions of variant genes and proteins” which were then screened to find things of possible commercial interest.

What caught our attention was that the Wikipedia writer stated that the “laboratory process mimics the powerful natural process of evolution.” And there lies the key to our interest in what is going on in Redwood.

Researchers appear to be using artificial methods, called biochemistry, to created genetic alterations or mutations. Each mutation is then closely studied to see if any can be developed for commercial application.

There has been a long-standing belief that while mutations occur in nature, they are rarely, if ever, successful. Calves born with two heads, cats with six claws on each foot and other mutant variations usually cannot be passed on. Animals born from cross breeding also fit into this category. Most die young or if they grow to maturity, they are sterile and cannot reproduce another of their kind.

Consequently, the research occurring at Maxygen laboratories must be something like looking for a needle in a haystack. Only with the help of computer technology can a team of researchers even consider this kind of search. 

As of 2009 the only potential development emerging from the Maxygen laboratory is something called Maxy-G34, a drug still under study that may, if approved for medical use, treat chemotherapy-induced destruction of white blood cells. The drug appears to stimulate bone marrow to produce more white blood cells.

Maxy-G34 is still in early phases of development and it could be several years before it is available for patient use, if it ever gets that far. If successful, the drug could be profitable, but the stakes are high. As of the end of 2007 the company reported a loss of $11.7 million. Much of the money came from government and private grants.

The Redwood scientists are obviously sticking their necks out by devoting their lives to molecular breeding to produce mutant genes of any value to mankind. We might compare the work to panning for gold. It might take years to find what they are looking for, but if they ever find that nugget, eureka!