The Future of Open Source Biotechnology

In the not so distant future, biotechnology will come to look much like present day software development. This is somewhat inevitable, given the falling cost of computing power. While a great deal of the newest biotechnology is powered by advances in computational technology, ultimately everything bio will benefit. Most currently real world experimental techniques - rather than just a select few - will become cheaper to carry out in simulation. Why spend millions keeping racks of mice when you can spend hundreds of thousands on reliable, tested software to do the same job - software that will become cheaper by an order of magnitude with each passing decade. Before this transition is even mostly underway, we will see an unleashing of talent comparable to that in open source software development today. Just look at how far and fast software has come in the last ten years compared to the ten before that...

For my money, the most interesting part of this process is the enabling effects of cheap computing power - and the tools to take advantage of it - on people who are not professional researchers. To put it another way, the line between researcher and nonresearcher will become very blurred, just as the line between programmer and nonprogrammer is today. The present open source software development community contains diverse individuals, small teams, academic, non-academic, corporate and non-corporate groups producing solutions for specific problems that bother them or inspire them. In the future, equally diverse organizations will form and collaborate to produce solutions for health and longevity using open biotechnology yet to come.

The most important result of open information sharing and falling costs is the way in which it opens up the priesthood - be it of programmers or biotech researchers - and allows a much wider range of people to add their skills, time, desires and ideas to the mix. Just as open source software development has led to a melting pot of innovative designs, better software and a blurring of traditional lines, so too will the open biotech movement of the future.

Looking at the tremendous dynamism and energy of the current software development space, I think that this can only be a good thing.


Solving these problems via open source will go miles toward addressing the "only the rich will be able to afford it" argument.

Posted by: Dave at April 29th, 2005 9:00 AM

This trend is not limited to bio-informatics. The instrumentation used in life science gets cheaper and more capable as well. Micro-fluidics is the key technology here. It is the biochemical equivalent to micro-electronics, with thousands and, potentially, millions of microchannels, pumps, chambers, and whatnot all put together onto one chip. Microfluidics devices are made by microscale fabrication, similar to that used in semiconductors. This is one aspect of MEMS and MEMS fabrication technology.

These devices, coupled with computers for design, control, and analysis; will allow for analysis and synthesis of hierarchial biological systems from DNA up to multi-cellular level. This is when the true revolution in biotechnology will take place.

There are many companies making products in this field. many of them can be found on BioCompare ( and Bio ( websites. These websites provide a snap-shot of the competitiveness of the biotechnological instrumentation industry. If you doubt this, just try bringing some of this technology to market.

Posted by: Kurt at April 29th, 2005 11:39 AM


I think this is exactly the direction the industry will take, but for now we are stuck with big drug companies. The new book "More Than Human" suggests that drug development in our country is driven by demand and the FDA approval process.

Drug companies know that there would be a huge demand for life extension therapies, but at this time, aging is not considered a disease. A life extension drug marketed for life extension is not likely to be approved by the FDA.

The author predicts that the first wave of true life extension drugs will not be labeled or marketed as life extension therapy. Instead, its more likely that it will be marketed as treatment for cancer prevention, diabetes prevention, heart disease prevention, blood pressure medicine, etc.

Doctors and patients will quickly see through this. Doctors will begin prescribing the treatment for everybody over a certain age and then the FDA will have to adjust to stay relevant - probably by classifying aging as a disease.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at April 29th, 2005 12:36 PM

Anyone interested in this may want to watch or get involved in nascent efforts. A lot will be happening there over the next year.

Disclaimer: I work for Science Commons's parent organization.

Posted by: Mike Linksvayer at April 29th, 2005 4:48 PM

If the readers want to see that this is already happening (not nascent), check out the BIOS Initiative, developed and hosted by CAMBIA, a non-profit (for which I work) in Australia.

We've been developing a major public, free resource of full-text patents in life sciences which will soon encompass all patents in all major jurisdiction. Patent Landscapes to make the opaque world of patents more transparent. Licenses and procedures to forge a 'Protected Technology Commons'. A new internet-based distributive research facility called And new enabling technologies (published in Nature in Feb) that are provided in open source licenses, that eliminate literally hundreds of core patent restrictions in biotechnology.

This is just the beginning, and its extending into public health very soon with additional patent portfolios being converted to BiOS Open Source bioForge projects. For those interested in gerontology, we may have a treat in store, as we have patents on the catalytic subunit of human telomerase that we're about to open source on the 'forge, to develop cancer diagnostics for poor people. These technologies have serious implications for aging research as well.

So just a heads up that its not pie in the sky. This month, Nature Biotechnology, the major journal in the field, has both a profile and a cover editorial on this activity - not fully endorsing it as the field is dominated by entities using old business models (sad to see, with such high technology) which have not yet realized that the tools of innovation - like the low and middle end of the software stack - should be a massively open, rapidly improving technology suite on which industries can profitably and ethically build.

Check out our work and help out. This is a community activity and can only fly with serious thoughtful partners.

Posted by: Richard A Jefferson at June 23rd, 2005 4:29 PM
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