Maxygen: Evolution of DNA in vitro By Ilan Zipkin
Staff Writer

Recombinant DNA techniques are the unquestioned foundation of biotechnology. Maxygen Inc. hopes to take this technology to a new level, combining DNA recombination plus mutation (to generate maximal diversity) with reiterative assays (screening or selection) to rapidly improve DNA sequences.

The technology, called gene shuffling or molecular breeding, mirrors the evolutionary process as a means to generate DNAs encoding improved genes, operons (sets of genes that act together) or vector sequences, but is obviously much faster than natural evolution.

The company is based on investigational work begun in 1993 at Glaxo Wellcome's Affymax Research Institute by co-founder Willem Stemmer and colleagues. Discussions about forming an independent company started in 1996, and the official spin-off from Glaxo Wellcome-Affymax took place this past March.

Glaxo has a majority equity stake, and has transferred all intellectual property rights to gene shuffling technology to the company, but retains the right to use it for selected internal research purposes.

Maxygen is led by co-founder and CEO Alejandro Zaffaroni, the founder of Alza Corp. (AZA, Palo Alto, Calif.), DNAX Research Institute (Palo Alto, Calif.), Affymax N.V. (Palo Alto, Calif.), Affymetrix Inc. (AFFX, Santa Clara, Calif.), and Symyx Technologies (Sunnyvale, Calif.).

Molecular breeding

Zaffaroni's philosophy of company formation continues to be focused on validated enabling technology (see next page). In this case, the company is focused on technology development and application, according to Maxygen co-founder, president and COO Russell Howard.