August 31, 2002
Will biological technologies advance as rapidly as electronic technologies?

How fast will biotechnology advance? Will it be extremely difficult and time consuming to discover the genetic causes of various human characteristics or the genetic variations that contribute to disease? We will start by taking a look at some of the known rates of technological advance in the electronics industry. Then we'll look at biotech and see if we can find similar rates of advance in crucial biotechnologies.

In the electronics industry it is well known that microprocessor speed doubles about every 18 months. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 famously stated Moore's Law (more about it here) which predicted a microprocessor speed doubling rate that would last for decades. He originally predicted a 1 year doubling rate. But the rate of progress slowed to an 18 month doubling rate in the late 1970s. Gordon Moore is now predicting that in a few generations the microprocessor speed doubling rate will slow to a three year interval.

While the microprocessor speed doubling rate has attracted the most attention in the popular press there are other electronics technology doubling rates that are of equal or greater importance. Two big ones are hard disk storage capacity and fiber optic transmission bandwidth. In contrast to Moore's Law for microprocessor speed the hard disk storage doubling rate has actually accelerated in recent years:

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, bit density increased at a compounded rate of about 25 percent per year (which implies a doubling time of roughly three years). After 1991 the annual growth rate jumped to 60 percent (an 18-month doubling time), and after 1997 to 100 percent (a one-year doubling time).

Fiber optic capacity is doubling at an even faster rate. The number of pulses per laser is doubling once every 18 months while the number of laser frequencies per optical fiber is doubling once every 12 months. So in 3 years we can expect the transmission capacity of a single fiber optic to go thru 5 doublings which translates into a 32 times increase in capacity per fiber. The combination of increase in number of lasers and increase in amount of information sent per laser yields a doubling period is less than 8 months. This is an astounding rate of progress.

So what does all of this have to do with the future of biotechnology? Well, certainly computers and computer networks are vital for doing biological research and biotech development work. So biology will advance more rapidly in the future than it has in the past because technologies that are useful as supporting tools but which are not specific to doing biology are advancing so rapidly. But what is more interesting is progress of various technologies that are specific to trying to understand and manipulate biological systems. While what follows is far from a complete picture of biotech rates of advance even this partial picture makes clear that we can expect revolutionary advances in biotechnology within the lifetimes of most of us.

This recent article in the New York Times is about a project in Iceland to do SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism - a single letter position in the genome that can vary from person to person) mapping to hunt for genetic causes of diseases. They mention that their cost of doiing each SNP position analysis is 50 cents. Okay, some scientists estimate that the number of important SNPs in humans is about 100,000 SNPs (other estimates range as high as 400,000). These are SNPs that occur in areas of the genome that get expressed. That means that if you happen to have a spare $50,000 (in US dollars) lying around you can have your own SNP map done now. Pretty pricey but literally millions of millionaires today could afford to have their SNPs mapped (hey you multimillionaires: be the first person in your social circle to know your DNA SNP map!). I will leave for a later post how we personally and collectively will be able to benefit some day from having our personal SNP maps done.

Since $50,000 is a large chunk of cash for most of us the really interesting question is this: How fast will SNP mapping costs fall? To start with, it would help to have data on how SNP mapping costs have fallen in the past. It looks like SNP mapping costs haven't fallen at all in the last 3 years. This Wired article from 1999 quotes a cost for SNP mapping of 50 cents which is the same as the price quoted in the June 2002 NY Times article. However, the Wired article claims that Glaxo's Luminex Bead Technology may eventually reduce SNP costs to one-one thousandth of a cent per SNP. So to have 100,000 SNPs checked would cost you one whole US dollar. The cost of a doctor's visit to draw the blood (or perhaps to take a skin sample) and send it into the lab would cost more than the test itself. One can imagine mass screening programs run at work places and schools as a way to drive the total cost closer to the cost of the test itself. When something like the Luminex Bead Technology makes it to market the vast bulk of the populations of the industrialized countries will be able to get their personal SNP maps done. In later posts we'll explore the many ways this information will be used.

That Wired article makes no claim as to when this huge reduction in SNP mapping costs is going to happen. But on the Cambridge Healthtech Institute site they claim that the biotech industry has targeted an achievement of 1 cent per SNP within 2 years. That would put the cost per person for SNP mapping at about $1000, or if one accepts a higher estimate of 400,000 for the number of important SNPs in the genome the total cost is $4000 per person. Quite affordable for the affluent person who really must have everything. The CHI article also cites an SNP assay system available now from Affymetrix using their gene array chip technology that lowers SNP assay costs to 30 cents per location.

Since not all DNA sequence differences are SNP differences there will still be uses for other types of DNA assaying technology. Basic sequencing of entire genomes will continue to have uses for human health and other purposes. There are advances happening in basic DNA sequencing technology as well. The Cambridge Healthtech Insitute page mentions a nanopore sequencing method that may eventually be able to sequence over 1000 DNA locations (with each location referred to as a base pair or bp) per second. That would be over 86 million bp/day per instrument which translates into the ability to sequence the entire human genome in a little over a month. Compare that to the several year time period that the human genome sequencing project took (and that used many DNA sequencing machines - anyone know how many?). In the short term they claim a 1 to 2 year industry goal to produce machines that can sequence on the order of over 1 million bp/day as compared to the current high end of 200,000-300,000 bp/day per instrument. To put this in perspective they are projecting an advance in DNA sequencing throughput in a time frame which yields a doubling rate that is faster than the Moore's Law doubling rate for microprocessors.

DNA sequencing can be thought of as a way to read structure. It doesn't by itself explain how the structure functions or when the structure is functioning in a particular way. However, advances are being made in methods for monitoring the activity level or state of each of the genes in a cell. It used to be that just measuring the activity level of a single gene was quite difficult. But there are technologies for watching gene activity as well. Affymetrix GeneChip arrays can measure the activity of tens of thousands of genes at once.

These are all signs that biotechnology is going to advance at rates which are analogous to the way electronics technology has been advancing for decades. If that is the case we should expect to see the costs for taking apart and manipulating biological systems to drop by orders of magnitude while the speed of doing so rises by orders of magnitude as well.

The lack of ability to rapidly read the contents and state of our DNA has kept molecular biology advancing for decades as a veritable snail's pace. Without easy access to the basic code that governs cells we had little prospect of ever fully understanding degenerative diseases, aging, or of how and why we differ from each other physically and mentally. But as sequencing and assaying techniques increase in speed and fall in cost the very complex biological processes within cells that have remained a mystery for most of human history are suddenly becoming accessible to dissection.

Later posts will explore the many practical uses and dangerous abuses that these advances in capability can be used for.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 August 31 12:12 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

Patrick said at September 3, 2002 10:06 PM:

I think the biggest holdup to biotech advancing as quickly as electronics is the law.

Every single person who gets an idea about electronics, software, or software applications can set up a experiment in the garage or dorm room and try it out.

Try this with genetics and you will have your door kicked in and be haulled off to gaol. Greenpeace will blockade you, the US military will start taking an interest...

Bob said at September 4, 2002 8:27 PM:

In response to Patrick's comments:

I would not dismiss the coming advances in biotechnology so quickly. In any case, the advances in semiconductor technology were driven by the Intels, MOStechs, Zylogs, Motorolas and AMDs. The advances happened in well-funded laboratories and not in anyone's garage.

The Wozniaks and Dells simply assembled existing technology. They may have assembled the technology with great ingenuity, but the technology already existed. The Moore's Law growth in semiconductor technology was already well advanced before Wozniak wired a 6502 into the first Apple I. (In fact, the 6502 came out around the same time Moore amended his "law". )

I don't why anyone would expect medical advances or their commercialization to happen in anyone's garage. After all, medical products require things like double-blind studies to gain approval.

While some might argue that the "garage factor" hastened adoption of new semiconductor technology, I would disagree. Hobbyist computers based on the 8080 were already on the market when Wozniak spun his magic, and Dell can hardly claim to have invented the direct marketing channel for computers -- all of the early hobbyist computers were marketed directly to consumers.

Wozniak's and Dell's innovations happened independent of the "garage"--just as Compaq's and Microsoft's innovations happened independent of the "garage". Brilliant, innovative thinkers will do amazing things with the coming advances in biotechnology, they just won't do them in their garage.

I don't know how interested the military is in biotechnology yet, but they should be extremely interested. However, I doubt their interest will impede progress--quite the opposite.

It is true that some organizations lobby against certain applications of the technology at this time. However, lobbyists will have little effect on countries like China, and the objections are effective now mostly due to crude technology. As the state of the art advances, many of the objections will lose their effectiveness.

Marina said at August 30, 2004 5:35 AM:

With such enormous microprocessor's speed growing it is quite possible that soon there will be a picture described in the trilogy of the "Matrix"...

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