Synthetic Life

[ Sun. Aug. 2. 2009 ]

There is a growing consensus (at least in Silicon Valley) that the information age is about to give way to the era of synthetic genetics. That was underscored recently when Harvard geneticist George Church and J. Craig Venter — of the race to decode the human genome fame — gave lectures before a small group of scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, and writers in West Hollywood.

The event, billed as “A Short Course on Synthetic Genomics,” was organized by John Brockman, the literary impresario (and book agent for several New York Times reporters, including this one) who publishes the cybersalon-style website, a forum dedicated to scientists (many of whom are his clients) and their ideas.

In roughly six hours of lectures, both scientists tried to convey how the world will be changed by the ability to routinely read genetic sequences into computing systems and then store, replicate, alter and insert them back into living cells.

The rate at which this technology is now improving puts silicon to shame. Dr. Church noted that between 1970 and 2005 gene sequencing had taken place on a Moore’s Law pace, improving at about 1.5 times per year. Since then it has improved at the rate of an order of magnitude, or ten times annually.

In the process the cost of sequencing the human genome has plunged from $3 billion to $5 thousand and continues to fall. Dr. Church identified 17 companies and one “open source” project all pursuing different technologies to further push down cost and speed up the pace of sequencing.

As a consequence, the structure of the emerging synthetic genetics industry is beginning to mirror that of the semiconductor and computer industries, which are based on modular components and design tools.

The key to the vast growth of the computer industry took place during the 1970s when physicist Carver Mead helped give the industry a standard design approach based on modular components. Now that appears to be happening in the synthetic biology world as well.

For someone who has spent the past three decades writing about computing, Dr. Venter’s talk was eye-opening.

“I view DNA as an analog information system,” he said. “ and I hope to convince you in fact that it is absolutely the software of life.”

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John Markoff