June 21, 2011
DNA Synthesis Costs Dropping Rapidly

An article in Technology Review about synthetic biology (e.g. create custom organism to make stuff) includes an interesting fact at the end: the costs of DNA synthesis is dropping as fast as the cost of DNA sequencing.

Fortunately, the cost of DNA synthesis technology, much like that of DNA sequencing technology, is dropping rapidly. George Church, director of the Center for Computational Genomics at Harvard, noted in his talk that the costs of both DNA synthesis and sequencing technologies have been decreasing at an astonishing rate—lately by a factor of 10 each year.

The dropping costs for DNA synthesis will accelerate the rate at which scientists try out new designs of genes and organisms.

Where does this lead in the long run? The biggest wild card: Far more people will be able to do genetic engineering. Just as computing power spread from large organizations to anyone who can afford a cell phone the number of people who can make new organisms will grow by orders of magnitude. Where does this lead to? Ecological disasters where introduced genetically engineered species wipe out natural species? Count me concerned.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 June 21 12:40 AM  Biotech Advance Rates

David A. Young said at June 21, 2011 9:05 AM:

Well, of course, we'll try to "regulate away" the threat, which will be both expensive and futile. Instead, we need to start thinking now about ways to make detection and response functions as ubiquitous and intelligent as possible.

Tom Mazanec said at June 21, 2011 12:30 PM:

The simplest and likely first organisms to be engineered are bacteria and viruses. We may see plagues of novel diseases in the near future.

Abelard Lindsey said at June 21, 2011 2:23 PM:

A decentralized network of bio-hackers will be far more capable at responding to a "rogue" virus or bacteria than the centralized institutions such as WHO or the federal government. This is why I think the emergence of DIY biotechnology is more benefit than threat. Also, there is the "Vegas Group" initiative to create a network of DIY biotech people to develop the SENS therapies.

Engineer-Poet said at June 22, 2011 2:08 PM:

I doubt that engineered species wiping out nature is a serious threat.  Just look at our food crops; they're delicate and easily out-competed by weeds, and pests will chow down on them for the same reasons we do.

Nanonymous said at June 22, 2011 8:04 PM:

You are 35 years late. These fears sounded off at Asilomar conference in 1975 and NONE of them ever materialized. The reasons are what Engineer-Poet points to: humans are pretty bad at playing gods. Everything we make is clumsy and deficient in subtle ways, utterly unable to compete in the wild with naturally selected forms.

Also, gene synthesis cost is not going to drop for much longer. It can't be lower than DNA oligonicleotide synthesis and that one has bottomed out at around $0.2 per base for many years now. So an average gene of 1500 DNA bases will never costs less than $500, which is not that far from today's ~ $1500. Everyone who can invest $10000 in the minimally competent lab can already buy all the DNA they want.

Engineer-Poet said at June 22, 2011 9:54 PM:

You get me wrong.  Engineered species won't be major threats because they're deficient, it's because they're NOT deficient.  They throw more energy into the things WE want, instead of protective and competitive mechanisms which decrease yields.  We compensate with pesticides, fungicides and tricks like the BT gene, but those are either absent outside the cultivated area or easily evolved around if they become too common.

Randall Parker said at June 22, 2011 10:20 PM:


In 1975 very few people could make a dangerous pathogen. Back about 30 years ago I happened to be sitting across the dinner table from the late biochemist Efraim Racker (NAS member, quite accomplished) and we were chatting about genetic engineering of organisms. He told me that he knew every scientist capable of making a dangerous plague pathogen (not sure if he was including USSR scientists), he knew what they were working on, and expected to die of old age. Then he pointed his finger at me and said "but you have something to worry about".

Well, genetically altering pathogens is easier than more complex organisms. Heck, just the ability to do DNA synthesis and some additional work in packaging would allow the recreation of smallpox. That'd be devastating. The smallpox DNA sequence is known and is about 185k letters long.

The cost of the segments is just part of the problem. Connecting them up into the complete 185k continuous strand and packaging it all up is an set of problems.

It is possible to create pathogens or predators that would eat into assorted ecosystems. The potential scale up ecosystem upset is huge.

Faruq said at June 23, 2011 5:17 AM:

Can anyone come up with an 'alternative future' scenario where people can pop into a pharmacy and buy a pill to increase their IQ,not within 25 years as most people think,but as soon as 2 years? (failing popping into a pharmacy,doing it at home using equipment bought on ebay)?

fred zeppelin said at June 23, 2011 12:59 PM:

Farug: Not sure about the AltFut scenario, but the Star Trek Eugenics war comes to mind. The 40's/50's era comic books had some of those ideas - i.e. Capt. America and the Super Soldiers.

R. Parker - my fear is not the known research and the release of a mistake/accident, but those whom are unknown, working to a deliberate release...
I'm all for DNA research to eradicate cancer and other diseases, and to correct deficiencies in some humans (boy, a way to make us use more than the 10% of our brains - sign me up!), but re-gen of the whole species is playing God - and I bet the won't like the competition...

Lummox JR said at June 23, 2011 2:03 PM:

Fred, you know the 10% thing is a myth, right? Not even a very good one, at that.

Nanonymous said at June 23, 2011 3:33 PM:

It is possible to create pathogens or predators that would eat into assorted ecosystems.

Sure, it is possible if you have good workable designs. My point is that we don't have them! (So far at least and nothing suggests having one in the foreseeable future). And smallpox is the the one and ONLY example of the known dangers of DNA synthesis (and yes, making 185 kbp is pretty involved and expensive right now). Even the simplest possible task - making good bioweapons - utterly failed so far. We know that for sure from Soviets declassified programs - despite many efforts, they never come with anything better than existing natural designs. I'd be willing to bet that the same is true in the USA (bunch of small incremental improvements but no super bugs). Coming up with a better smaller is not easy.

@Engineer-Poet: if they are unable to compete in the wild, the they ARE deficient. Fitness deficient, that is.

Orson said at June 24, 2011 2:01 AM:

Yes, NEW pathogens via genetic engineering are very unlikely - fortunately.

But I took a grad course on the history of biotechnology at Harvard. And the main lines of defense against reverse engineering an old natural menace like small pox were limited by available computing power to do the DNA sequencing and the limited number of 400 or so PhD specialists in virology who could produce its unique active components.

Fortunately, at present, the first isn't possible, and looking after the second by our security agencies is not difficult. For now. But once the first becomes widely available, the second barrier will be breached by bio-terror interests sooner or later. When? In about the next nine years, give or take a few.

The final element is simply the desire to deploy a small pox bio-terror weapon on young Westerners no longer vaccinated against it. Leave this to assorted Salafists, Islamists, descendants of al Qaida. They have no compunction about - or how did one recent Palestinian put it? - happy sacrifice himself in a nuclear fireball as long as he also gets Israel.

We were warned about eventual proliferation of nuclear weapons for decades, until 9/11 made dealing with it a political priority. That has happened, requiring two 1.5 trillion dollar wars to mitigate, disperse and defuse. Thus, we can look forward to another revival of Bush-era anti-terrorism efforts within a decade - either after an actual terrorist event, or more unlikely, without one.

The example of the past will be unlikely to prevent this. Our memories are too short and our willingness to prevent it to consumed by other urgent priorities.

Abelard Lindsey said at June 24, 2011 11:46 AM:

I just read Rob Carlson's "Biology is Technology". I have found several protocol instructions on websites such as Biobricks and OpenWetWare. I am looking for a good introductory textbook in order to learn how to do some of this stuff. I think bio-hacking might be a good hobby to take up if I can keep the cost down.

Nanonymous said at June 24, 2011 6:53 PM:

I am looking for a good introductory textbook in order to learn how to do some of this stuff.

Can you give an example of some of "this stuff" that you would like to learn? The websites you mention contain all the basics - as long as one knows what to look for. If you have an access to a university library, there are two main texts that cover almost everything on some level: "Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual" and "Current Protocols In Molecular Biology" (the former one can also be found as pirated PDF on the Web). Problem is, there are some very basic things that won't be found in any protocol. These you need to see how it's done by observing someone doing it.

I think bio-hacking might be a good hobby to take up if I can keep the cost down.

It's going to be expensive no matter what. All considered, I'd say $10,000 minimum to get a setup that lets you accomplish something of some use (i.e. beyond middle school type projects of isolating DNA from onion).

Randall Parker said at June 25, 2011 10:11 PM:


What do you see as the foreseeable future? 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

The declining cost for DNA sequencing is opening a floodgate of DNA sequencing data for a large assortment of organisms. One way to build a better organism: Combine the best pieces of existing organisms. Reuse of existing components reduces the need to develop new components.

With microfluidics likely to enable a big scaling up of automated biological experiments it seems to me that biological science is going to experience a a revolution in how it is done due to the equivalent of Moore's Law applied to the laboratory. The ability to automatically reverse engineer biological systems seems an achievable goal by mid-century. So it will become easier to get knowledge on existing organisms for which genes and proteins function how to achieve which features of each organism. All that information will be usable to do erector set building of new organisms.

We already have examples of gene transfer between organisms for farming to make crops have some desired feature (e.g. resistance to an herbicide). I expect the rate of human-guided gene transfer to rise by orders of magnitude for commercial purposes.

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