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Biotechnology: The falling cost of equipment capable of manipulating DNA is opening up a new field of “biohacking” to enthusiasts

MANY of the world’s great innovators started out as hackers—people who like to tinker with technology—and some of the largest technology companies started in garages. Thomas Edison built General Electric on the foundation of an improved way to transmit messages down telegraph wires, which he cooked up himself. Hewlett-Packard was founded in a garage in California (now a national landmark), as was Google, many years later. And, in addition to computer hardware and software, garage hackers and home-build enthusiasts are now merrily cooking up electric cars, drone aircraft and rockets. But what about biology? Might biohacking—tinkering with the DNA of existing organisms to create new ones—lead to innovations of a biological nature?

The potential is certainly there. The cost of sequencing DNA has fallen from about $1 per base pair in the mid-1990s to a tenth of a cent today, and the cost of synthesising the molecule has also fallen. Rob Carlson, the founder of a firm called Biodesic, started tracking the price of synthesis a decade ago. He found a remarkably steady decline, from over $10 per base pair to, lately, well under $1 (see chart). This decline recalls Moore’s law, which, when promulgated in 1965, predicted the exponential rise of computing power. Someday history may remember drops in the cost of DNA synthesis as Carlson’s curve. …

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