A Glance at the Roots of Biotech Progress

The cost and speed of of DNA sequencing and synthesis is a baseline metric for progress in biotechnology. An article in the latest Scientific American illustrates a good point: these fundamental technologies are to bioscience as laying out circuitry was to computing - and as ripe for a revolution in standardization, effectiveness and efficiency.

As ever less money and time is required to experiment with DNA, we'll see ever more good science accomplished. We are not far from an era of garage biotechnology, of a million eyes looking at compelling problems in medicine - such as the root causes of aging and how to prevent them - and startups by the thousands.

Some calibration points for continuing progress can be found in a recent article at the MIT Technology Review:

It's about reducing cost at a reasonable accuracy. Right now the cost of synthesizing a base [using conventional technology] is about 10 cents. That's the current street price for raw oligonucleotides. For synthesizing simple genes, it's more like $1.30 a base. [Our method] can manufacture oligonucleotides at .01 cent per base.


The implications are that we are getting closer to being able to arbitrarily "program" the millions of base pairs in microbes or billions of base pairs in plants and animal genomes similar to the way that we program computers.


I think what is affordable -- and remember, this is a lifetime expense; your personal genome will hopefully last you 80 years or more -- is $10,000. If I can save $100 on average a year, it is a no-brainer. That's the cost of a couple days of missed work, or one diagnostic test that can be put off due to low risk, or avoiding bad choices on a year's worth of drugs. Then the question is, how much of a person's genome can we sequence for $10,000? Seven thousand dollars will buy you a million base pairs of DNA [using conventional technology], which is one-6,000th of your diploid genome. Not very much.

Polony sequencing [a method developed by Church and colleagues] is about a hundred times less expensive. So you can sequence about 1 percent of the genome [for $10,000]. That's not bad. You could focus on likely places you're going to have problems.We got a factor-of-ten improvement in the last six months, so if we could get another 10 percent improvement in the next year, that would give us 10 percent of the genome. If we could pick 10 percent of the genome for which we have lifestyle, nutritional, or synthetic solutions, that would be a good deliverable for a $10,000 investment. And it will just get better from there.

Interesting stuff. We're heading for a real influx of information; vast, ever-growing databases that will dwarf everything known today about human biochemistry and systems. How will the scientific community - soon to extend out to everyone with $10,000 in the bank, a good idea, and the will to research - and its tools develop to manage and make sense of this vast complexity?

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