A memorial to Mark Buller, PhD, and our response to the propaganda film "Demon in the Freezer".

Earlier this year my friend and colleague Mark Buller passed away. Mark was a noted virologist and a professor at Saint Louis University. He was struck by a car while riding his bicycle home from the lab, and died from his injuries. Here is Mark's obituary as published by the university.

In 2014 and 2015, Mark and I served as advisors to a WHO scientific working group on synthetic biology and the variola virus (the causative agent of smallpox). In 2016, we wrote the following, previously un-published, response to an "Op-Doc" that appeared in the New York Times. In a forthcoming post I will have more to say about both my experience with the WHO and my thoughts on the recent publication of a synthetic horsepox genome. For now, here is the last version (circa May, 2016) of the response Mark I and wrote to the Op-Doc, published here as my own memorial to Professor Buller.


Variola virus is still needed for the development of smallpox medical countermeasures

On May 17, 2016 Errol Morris presented a short movie entitled “Demon in the Freezer” [note: quite different from the book of the same name by Richard Preston] in the Op-Docs section of the on-line New York Times. The piece purported to present both sides of the long-standing argument over what to do with the remaining laboratory stocks of variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox, which no longer circulates in the human population.

Since 1999, the World Health Organization has on numerous occasions postponed the final destruction of the two variola virus research stocks in Russia and the US in order to support public health related research, including the development of smallpox molecular diagnostics, antivirals, and vaccines.  

“Demon in the Freezer” clearly advocates for destroying the virus. The Op-Doc impugns the motivation of scientists carrying out smallpox research by asking: “If given a free hand, what might they unleash?” The narrative even suggests that some in the US government would like to pursue a nefarious policy goal of “mutually assured destruction with germs”. This portion of the movie is interlaced with irrelevant, hyperbolic images of mushroom clouds. The reality is that in 1969 the US unilaterally renounced the production, storage or use biological weapons for any reason whatsoever, including in response to a biologic attack from another country. The same cannot be said for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In 1975 the US ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical and biological agents in warfare and became party to the Biological Weapons Convention that emphatically prohibits the use of biological weapons in warfare.

“Demon in the Freezer” is constructed with undeniable flair, but in the end it is a benighted 21st century video incarnation of a middling 1930's political propaganda mural. It was painted with only black and white pigments, rather than a meaningful palette of colors, and using a brush so broad that it blurred any useful detail. Ultimately, and to its discredit, the piece sought to create fear and outrage based on unsubstantiated accusations.

Maintaining live smallpox virus is necessary for ongoing development and improvement of medical countermeasures. The first-generation US smallpox vaccine was produced in domesticated animals, while the second-generation smallpox vaccine was manufactured in sterile bioreactors; both have the potential to cause serious side effects in 10-20% of the population. The third generation smallpox vaccine has an improved safety profile, and causes minimal side effects. Fourth generation vaccine candidates, based on newer, lower cost, technology, will be even safer and some are in preclinical testing. There remains a need to develop rapid field diagnostics and an additional antiviral therapy for smallpox.

Continued vigilance is necessary because it is widely assumed that numerous undeclared stocks of variola virus exist around the world in clandestine laboratories. Moreover, unsecured variola virus stocks are encountered occasionally in strain collections left behind by long-retired researchers, as demonstrated in 2014 with the discovery of 1950s vintage variola virus in a cold room at the NIH. The certain existence of unofficial stocks makes destroying the official stocks an exercise in declaring “victory” merely for political purposes rather than a substantive step towards increasing security. Unfortunately, the threat does not end with undeclared or forgotten samples.

In 2015 a WHO Scientific Working Group on Synthetic Biology and Variola Virus and Smallpox determined that a “skilled laboratory technician or undergraduate student with experience of working with viruses” would be able to generate variola virus from the widely available genomic sequence in “as little as three months”. Importantly, this Working Group concluded that “there will always be the potential to recreate variola virus and therefore the risk of smallpox happening again can never be eradicated.” Thus, the goal of a variola virus-free future, however laudable, is unattainable. This is sobering guidance on a topic that requires sober consideration.

We welcome increased discussions of the risk of infectious disease and of public health preparedness. In the US these topics have too long languished among second (or third) tier national security conversations. The 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak and the current Congressional debate over funding to counter the Zika virus exemplifies the business-as-usual political approach of throwing half a bucket of water on the nearest burning bush while the surrounding countryside goes up in flames. Lethal infectious diseases are serious public health and global security issues and they deserve serious attention.

The variola virus has killed more humans numerically than any other single cause in history. This pathogen was produced by nature, and it would be the height of arrogance, and very foolish indeed, to assume nothing like it will ever again emerge from the bush to threaten human life and human civilization. Maintenance of variola virus stocks is needed for continued improvement of molecular diagnostics, antivirals, and vaccines. Under no circumstances should we unilaterally cripple those efforts in the face of the most deadly infectious disease ever to plague humans. This is an easy mistake to avoid.

Mark Buller, PhD, was a Professor of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, who passed away on February 24, 2017. Rob Carlson, PhD, is a Principal at the engineering and strategy firm Biodesic and a Managing Director of Bioeconomy Capital.

The authors served as scientific and technical advisors to the 2015 WHO Scientific Working Group on Synthetic Biology and Variola Virus.

Guesstimating the Size of the Global Array Synthesis Market

(Updated, Aug 31, for clarity.)

After chats with a variety of interested parties over the last couple of months, I decided it would be useful to try to sort out how much DNA is synthesized annually on arrays, in part to get a better handle on what sort of capacity it represents for DNA data storage. The publicly available numbers, as usual, are terrible, which is why the title of the post contains the word "guesstimating". Here goes.

First, why is this important? As the DNA synthesis industry grows, and the number of applications expands, new markets are emerging that use that DNA in different ways. Not all that DNA is produced using the same method, and the different methods are characterized by different costs, error rates, lengths, throughput, etc. (The Wikipedia entry on Oligonucleotide Synthesis is actually fairly reasonable, if you want to read more. See also Kosuri and Church, "Large-scale de novo DNA synthesis: technologies and applications".) If we are going to understand the state of the technology, and the economy built on that technology, then we need to be careful about measuring what the technology can do and how much it costs. Once we pin down what the world looks like today, we can start trying to make sensible projections, or even predictions, about the future.

While there is just one basic chemistry used to synthesize oligonucleotides, there are two physical formats that give you two very different products. Oligos synthesized on individual columns, which might be packed into 384 (or more) well plates, can be manipulated as individual sequences. You can use those individual sequences for any number of purposes, and if you want just one sequence at a time (for PCR or hybridization probes, gene therapy, etc), this is probably how you make it. You can build genes from column oligos by combining them pairwise, or in larger numbers, until you get the size construct you want (typically of order a thousand bases, or a kilobase [kB], at which point you start manipulating the kB fragments). I am not going to dwell on gene assembly and error correction strategies here; you can Google that.

The other physical format is array synthesis, in which synthesis takes place on a solid surface consisting of up to a million different addressable features, where light or charge is used to control which sequence is grown on which feature. Typically, all the oligos are removed from the array at once, which results in a mixed pool. You might insert this pool into a longer backbone sequence to construct a library of different genes that code for slightly different protein sequences, in order to screen those proteins for the characteristics you want. Or, if you are ambitious, you might use the entire pool of array oligos to directly assemble larger constructs such as genes. Again, see Google, Codon Devices, Gen9, Twist, etc. More relevant to my purpose here, a pool of array-synthesized oligos can be used as an extremely dense information storage medium. To get a sense of when that might be a viable commercial product, we need to have an idea of the throughput of the industry, and how far away from practical implementation we might be. 

Next, to recap, last year I made a stab at estimating the size of the gene synthesis market. Much of the industry revenue data came from a Frost & Sullivan report, commissioned by Genscript for its IPO prospectus. The report put the 2014 market for synthetic genes at only $137 million, from which I concluded that the total number of bases shipped as genes that year was 4.8 billion, or a bit less than a duplex human genome. Based on my conversations with people in the industry, I conclude that most of those genes were assembled from oligos synthesized on columns, with a modest, but growing, fraction from array oligos. (See "On DNA and Transistors", and preceding posts, for commentary on the gene synthesis industry and its future.)

The Frost & Sullivan report also claims that the 2014 market for single-stranded oligonucleotides was $241 million. The Genscript IPO prospectus does not specify whether this $241 million was from both array- and column-synthesized oligos, or not. But because Genscript only makes and uses column synthesis, I suspect it referred only to that synthesis format.  At ~$0.01 per base (give or take), this gives you about 24 billion bases synthesized on columns sold in 2014. You might wind up paying as much as $0.05 to $0.10 per base, depending on your specifications, which if prevalent would pull down the total global production volume. But I will stick with $0.01 per base for now. If you add the total number of bases sold as genes and the bases sold as oligos, you get to just shy of 30 billion bases (leaving aside for the moment the fact that an unknown fraction of the genes came from oligos synthesized on arrays).

So, now, what about array synthesis? If you search the interwebs for information on the market for array synthesis, you get a mess of consulting and marketing research reports that cost between a few hundred and many thousands of dollars. I find this to be an unhelpful corpus of data and analysis, even when I have the report in hand, because most of the reports are terrible at describing sources and methods. However, as there is no other source of data, I will use a rough average of the market sizes from the abstracts of those reports to get started. Many of the reports claim that in 2016 the global market for oligo synthesis was ~$1.3 billion, and that this market will grow to $2.X billion by 2020 or so. Of the $1.3B 2016 revenues, the abstracts assert that approximately half was split evenly between "equipment and reagents". I will note here that this should already make the reader skeptical of the analyses, because who is selling ~$260M worth of synthesis "equipment"? And who is buying it? Seems fishy. But I can see ~$260M in reagents, in the form of various columns, reagents, and purification kit. This trade, after all, is what keeps outfits like Glenn Research and Trilink in business.

Forging ahead through swampy, uncertain data, that leaves us with ~$650M in raw oligos. Should we say this is inclusive or exclusive of the $241M figure from Frost & Sullivan? I am going to split the difference and call it $500M, since we are already well into hand waving territory by now, anyway. How many bases does this $500M buy?

Array oligos are a lot cheaper than column oligos. Kosuri and Church write that "oligos produced from microarrays are 2–4 orders of magnitude cheaper than column-based oligos, with costs ranging from $0.00001–0.001 per nucleotide, depending on length, scale and platform." Here we stumble a bit, because cost is not the same thing as price. As a consumer, or as someone interested in understanding how actually acquiring a product affects project development, I care about price. Without knowing a lot more about how this cost range is related to price, and the distribution of prices paid to acquire array oligos, it is hard to know what to do with the "cost" range. The simple average cost would be $0.001 per base, but I also happen to know that you can get oligos en masse for less than that. But I do not know what the true average price is. For the sake of expediency, I will call it $0.0001 per base for this exercise.

Combining the revenue estimate and the price gives us about 5E12 bases per year. From there, assuming roughly 100-mer oligos, you get to 5E10 difference sequences. And adding in the number of features per array (between 100,000 and 1M), you get as many as 500,000 arrays run per year, or about 1370 per day. (It is not obvious that you should think of this as 1370 instruments running globally, and after seeing the Agilent oligo synthesis operation a few years ago, I suggest that you not do that.) If the true average price is closer to $0.00001 per base, then you can bump up the preceding numbers by an order of magnitude. But, to be conservative, I won't do that here. Also note that the ~30 billion bases synthesized on columns annually are not even a rounding error on the 5E12 synthesized on arrays.

Aside: None of these calculations delve into the mass (or the number of copies) per synthesized sequence. In principle, of course, you only need one perfect copy of each sequence, whether synthesized on columns or arrays, to use DNA in any just about application (except where you need to drive the equilibrium or reaction kinetics). Column synthesis gives you many more copies (i.e., more mass per sequence) than array synthesis. In principle — ignoring the efficiency of the chemical reactions — you could dial down the feature size on arrays until you were synthesizing just one copy per sequence. But then it would become exceedingly important to keep track of that one copy through successive fluidic operations, which sounds like a quite difficult prospect. So whatever the final form factor, an instrument needs to produce sufficient copies per sequence to be useful, but not so many that resources are wasted on unnecessary redundancy/degeneracy.

Just for shits and giggles, and because array synthesis could be important for assembling the hypothetical synthetic human genome, this all works out to be enough DNA to assemble 833 human duplex genomes per year, or 3 per day, in the absence of any other competing uses, of which there are obviously many. Also if you don't screw up and waste some of the DNA, which is inevitable. Finally, at a density of ~1 bit/base, this is enough to annually store 5 TB of data, or the equivalent of one very beefy laptop hard drive.

And so, if you have access to the entire global supply of single stranded oligonucleotides, and you have an encoding/decoding and sequencing strategy that can handle significant variations in length and high error rates at scale, you can store enough HD movies and TV to capture most of the new, good stuff that HollyBollyWood churns out every year. Unless, of course, you also need to accommodate the tastes and habits of a tween daughter, in which case your storage budget is blown for now and evermore no matter how much capacity you have at hand. Not to mention your wallet. Hey, put down the screen and practice the clarinet already. Or clean up your room! Or go to the dojo! Yeesh! Kids these days! So many exclamations!

Where was I?

Now that we have some rough numbers in hand, we can try to say something about the future. Based on my experience working on the Microsoft/UW DNA data storage project, I have become convinced that this technology is coming, and it will be based on massive increases in the supply of synthetic DNA. To compete with an existing tape drive (see the last few 'graphs of this post), able to read and write ~2 Gbits a second, a putative DNA drive would need to be able to read and write ~2 GBases per second, or ~183 Pbits/day, or the equivalent of ~10,000 human genomes a day — per instrument/device. Based on the guesstimate above, which gave a global throughput of just 3 human genomes per day, we are waaaay below that goal.

To be sure, there is probably some demand for a DNA storage technology that can work at lower throughputs: long term cold storage, government archives, film archives, etc. I suspect, however, that the many advantages of DNA data storage will attract an increasing share of the broader archival market once the basic technology is demonstrated on the market. I also suspect that developing the necessary instrumentation will require moving away from the existing chemistry to something new and different, perhaps enzymatically controlled synthesis, perhaps even with the aid of the still hypothetical DNA "synthase", which I first wrote about 17 years ago.

In any event, based on the limited numbers available today, it seems likely that the current oligo array industry has a long way to go before it can supply meaningful amounts of DNA for storage. It will be interesting to see how this all evolves.

A Few Thoughts and References Re Conservation and Synthetic Biology

Yesterday at Synthetic Biology 7.0 in Singapore, we had a good discussion about the intersection of conservation, biodiversity, and synthetic biology. I said I would post a few papers relevant to the discussion, which are below.

These papers are variously: the framing document for the original meeting at the University of Cambridge in 2013 (see also "Harry Potter and the Future of Nature"), sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society; follow on discussions from meetings in San Francisco and Bellagio; and my own efforts to try to figure out how quantify the economic impact of biotechnology (which is not small, especially when compared to much older industries) and the economic damage from invasive species and biodiversity loss (which is also not small, measured as either dollars or jobs lost). The final paper in this list is my first effort to link conservation and biodiversity with economic and physical security, which requires shifting our thinking from the national security of nation states and their political boundaries to the natural security of the systems and resources that those nation states rely on for continued existence.

"Is It Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation?", Antoinette J. Piaggio1, Gernot Segelbacher, Philip J. Seddon, Luke Alphey, Elizabeth L. Bennett, Robert H. Carlson, Robert M. Friedman, Dona Kanavy, Ryan Phelan, Kent H. Redford, Marina Rosales, Lydia Slobodian, Keith WheelerTrends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 32, Issue 2, February 2017, Pages 97–107

Robert Carlson, "Estimating the biotech sector's contribution to the US economy", Nature Biotechnology, 34, 247–255 (2016), 10 March 2016

Kent H. Redford, William Adams, Rob Carlson, Bertina Ceccarelli, “Synthetic biology and the conservation of biodiversity”, Oryx, 48(3), 330–336, 2014.

"How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?", Kent H. Redford, William Adams, Georgina Mace, Rob Carlson, Steve Sanderson, Framing Paper for International Meeting, Wildlife Conservation Society, April 2013.

"From national security to natural security", Robert Carlson, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 11 Dec 2013.

Warning: Construction Ahead

I am migrating from Movable Type to Squarespace. There was no easy way to do this. Undoubtedly, there are presently all sorts of formatting hiccups, lost media and images, and broken links. If you are looking for something in particular, use the Archive or Search tabs.

If you have a specific link you are trying to follow, and it has dashes between words, try replacing them with underscores. E.g., instead of "www.synthesis.cc/x-y-z", try "www.synthesis.cc/x_y_z". If the URL ends in "/x.html", try replacing that with "/x/".

I will be repairing links, etc., as I find them.

Late Night, Unedited Musings on Synthesizing Secret Genomes

By now you have probably heard that a meeting took place this past week at Harvard to discuss large scale genome synthesis. The headline large genome to synthesize is, of course, that of humans. All 6 billion (duplex) bases, wrapped up in 23 pairs of chromosomes that display incredible architectural and functional complexity that we really don't understand very well just yet. So no one is going to be running off to the lab to crank out synthetic humans. That 6 billion bases, by the way, just for one genome, exceeds the total present global demand for synthetic DNA. This isn't happening tomorrow. In fact, synthesizing a human genome isn't going to happen for a long time.

But, if you believe the press coverage, nefarious scientists are planning pull a Frankenstein and "fabricate" a human genome in secret. Oh, shit! Burn some late night oil! Burn some books! Wait, better — burn some scientists! Not so much, actually. There are a several important points here. I'll take them in no particular order.

First, it's true, the meeting was held behind closed doors. It wasn't intended to be so, originally. The rationale given by the organizers for the change is that a manuscript on the topic is presently under review, and the editor of the journal considering the manuscript made it clear that it considers the entire topic under embargo until the paper is published. This put the organizers in a bit of a pickle. They decided the easiest way to comply with the editor's wishes (which were communicated to the authors well after the attendees had made travel plans) was to hold the meeting under rules even more strict than Chatham House until the paper is published. At that point, they plan to make a full record of the meeting available. It just isn't a big deal. If it sounds boring and stupid so far, it is. The word "secret" was only introduced into the conversation by a notable critic who, as best I can tell, perhaps misconstrued the language around the editor's requirement to respect the embargo. A requirement that is also boring and stupid. But, still, we are now stuck with "secret", and all the press and bloggers who weren't there are seeing Watergate headlines and fame. Still boring and stupid.

Next, It has been reported that there were no press at the meeting. However, I understand that there were several reporters present. It has also been suggested that the press present were muzzled. This is a ridiculous claim if you know anything about reporters. They've simply been asked to respect the embargo, which so far they are doing, just like they do with every other embargo. (Note to self, and to readers: do not piss off reporters. Do not accuse them of being simpletons or shills. Avoid this at all costs. All reporters are brilliant and write like Hemingway and/or Shakespeare and/or Oliver Morton / Helen Branswell / Philip Ball / Carl Zimmer / Erica Check-Hayden. Especially that one over there. You know who I mean. Just sayin'.)

How do I know all this? You can take a guess, but my response is also covered by the embargo.

Moving on: I was invited to the meeting in question, but could not attend. I've checked the various associated correspondence, and there's nothing about keeping it "secret". In fact, the whole frickin' point of coupling the meeting to a serious, peer-reviewed paper on the topic was to open up the conversation with the public as broadly as possible. (How do you miss that unsubtle point, except by trying?) The paper was supposed to come out before, or, at the latest, at the same time as the meeting. Or, um, maybe just a little bit after? But, whoops. Surprise! Academic publishing can be slow and/or manipulated/politicized. Not that this happened here. Anyway, get over it. (Also: Editors! And, reviewers! And, how many times will I say "this is the last time!")

(Psst: an aside. Science should be open. Biology, in particular, should be done in the public view and should be discussed in the open. I've said and written this in public on many occasions. I won't bore you with the references. [Hint: right here.] But that doesn't mean that every conversation you have should be subject to review by the peanut gallery right now. Think of it like a marriage/domestic partnership. You are part of society; you have a role and a responsibility, especially if you have children. But that doesn't mean you publicize your pillow talk. That would be deeply foolish and would inevitably prevent you from having honest conversations with your spouse. You need privacy to work on your thinking and relationships. Science: same thing. Critics: fuck off back to that sewery rag in — wait, what was I saying about not pissing off reporters?)

Is this really a controversy? Or is it merely a controversy because somebody said it is? Plenty of people are weighing in who weren't there or, undoubtedly worse from their perspective, weren't invited and didn't know it was happening. So I wonder if this is more about drawing attention to those doing the shouting. That is probably unfair, this being an academic discussion, full of academics.

Secondly (am I just on secondly?), the supposed ethical issues. Despite what you may read, there is no rush. No human genome, nor any human chromosome, will be synthesized for some time to come. Make no mistake about how hard a technical challenge this is. While we have some success in hand at synthesizing yeast chromosomes, and while that project certainly serves as some sort of model for other genomes, the chromatin in multicellular organisms has proven more challenging to understand or build. Consequently, any near-term progress made in synthesizing human chromosomes is going to teach us a great deal about biology, about disease, and about what makes humans different from other animals. It is still going to take a long time. There isn't any real pressing ethical issue to be had here, yet. Building the ubermench comes later. You can be sure, however, that any federally funded project to build the ubermench will come with a ~2% set aside to pay for plenty of bioethics studies. And that's a good thing. It will happen.

There is, however, an ethical concern here that needs discussing. I care very deeply about getting this right, and about not screwing up the future of biology. As someone who has done multiple tours on bioethics projects in the U.S. and Europe, served as a scientific advisor to various other bioethics projects, and testified before the Presidential Commission on Bioethical Concerns (whew!), I find that many of these conversations are more about the ethicists than the bio. Sure, we need to have public conversations about how we use biology as a technology. It is a very powerful technology. I wrote a book about that. If only we had such involved and thorough ethical conversations about other powerful technologies. Then we would have more conversations about stuff. We would converse and say things, all democratic-like, and it would feel good. And there would be stuff, always more stuff to discuss. We would say the same things about that new stuff. That would be awesome, that stuff, those words. <dreamy sigh> You can quote me on that. <another dreamy sigh>

But on to the technical issues. As I wrote last month, I estimate that the global demand for synthetic DNA (sDNA) to be 4.8 billion bases worth of short oligos and ~1 billion worth of longer double-stranded (dsDNA), for not quite 6 Gigabases total. That, obviously, is the equivalent of a single human duplex genome. Most of that demand is from commercial projects that must return value within a few quarters, which biotech is now doing at eye-popping rates. Any synthetic human genome project is going to take many years, if not decades, and any commercial return is way, way off in the future. Even if the annual growth in commercial use of sDNA were 20% — which is isn't — this tells you, dear reader, that the commercial biotech use of synthetic DNA is never, ever, going to provide sufficient demand to scale up production to build many synthetic human genomes. Or possibly even a single human genome. The government might step in to provide a market to drive technology, just as it did for the human genome sequencing project, but my judgement is that the scale mismatch is so large as to be insurmountable. Even while sDNA is already a commodity, it has far more value in reprogramming crops and microbes with relatively small tweaks than it has in building synthetic human genomes. So if this story were only about existing use of biology as technology, you could go back to sleep.

But there is a use of DNA that might change this story, which is why we should be paying attention, even at this late hour on a Friday night.

DNA is, by far, the most sophisticated and densest information storage medium humans have ever come across. DNA can be used to store orders of magnitude more bits per gram than anything else humans have come up with. Moreover, the internet is expanding so rapidly that our need to archive data will soon outstrip existing technologies. If we continue down our current path, in coming decades we would need not only exponentially more magnetic tape, disk drives, or flash memory, but exponentially more factories to produce these storage media, and exponentially more warehouses to store them. Even if this is technically feasible it is economically implausible. But biology can provide a solution. DNA exceeds by many times even the theoretical capacity of magnetic tape or solid state storage.

A massive warehouse full of magnetic tapes might be replaced by an amount of DNA the size of a sugar cube. Moreover, while tape might last decades, and paper might last millennia, we have found intact DNA in animal carcasses that have spent three-quarters of a million years frozen in the Canadian tundra. Consequently, there is a push to combine our ability to read and write DNA with our accelerating need for more long-term information storage. Encoding and retrieval of text, photos, and video in DNA has already been demonstrated. (Yes, I am working on one of these projects, but I can't talk about it just yet. We're not even to the embargo stage.) 

Governments and corporations alike have recognized the opportunity. Both are funding research to support the scaling up of infrastructure to synthesize and sequence DNA at sufficient rates.

For a “DNA drive” to compete with an archival tape drive today, it needs to be able to write ~2Gbits/sec, which is about 2 Gbases/sec. That is the equivalent of ~20 synthetic human genomes/min, or ~10K sHumans/day, if I must coin a unit of DNA synthesis to capture the magnitude of the change. Obviously this is likely to be in the form of either short ssDNA, or possibly medium-length ss- or dsDNA if enzymatic synthesis becomes a factor. If this sDNA were to be used to assemble genomes, it would first have to be assembled into genes, and then into synthetic chromosomes, a non trivial task. While this would be hard, and would to take a great deal of effort and PhD theses, it certainly isn't science fiction.

But here, finally, is the interesting bit: the volume of sDNA necessary to make DNA information storage work, and the necessary price point, would make possible any number of synthetic genome projects. That, dear reader, is definitely something that needs careful consideration by publics. And here I do not mean "the public", the 'them' opposed to scientists and engineers in the know and in the do (and in the doo-doo, just now), but rather the Latiny, rootier sense of "the people". There is no them, here, just us, all together. This is important.

The scale of the demand for DNA storage, and the price at which it must operate, will completely alter the economics of reading and writing genetic information, in the process marginalizing the use by existing multibillion-dollar biotech markets while at the same time massively expanding capabilities to reprogram life. This sort of pull on biotechnology from non-traditional applications will only increase with time. That means whatever conversation we think we are having about the calm and ethical development biological technologies is about to be completely inundated and overwhelmed by the relentless pull of global capitalism, beyond borders, probably beyond any control. Note that all the hullabaloo so far about synthetic human genomes, and even about CRISPR editing of embryos, etc., has been written by Western commentators, in Western press. But not everybody lives in the West, and vast resources are pushing development of biotechnology outside of the of West. And that is worth an extended public conversation.

So, to sum up, have fun with all the talk of secret genome synthesis. That's boring. I am going off the grid for the rest of the weekend to pester litoral invertebrates with my daughter. You are on your own for a couple of days. Reporters, you are all awesome, make of the above what you will. Also: you are all awesome. When I get back to the lab on Monday I will get right on with fabricating the ubermench for fun and profit. But — shhh — that's a secret.