Stewart Brand -- “Where are the green biotech hackers?”

Tomorrow's New York Times has a great article on Stewart Brand.  In it, he asks the question, “Where are the green biotech hackers?”  We're coming, Stewart.  It's just that we're still on the slow part of the curves.

It's an interesting question, actually -- when do we get to the fast part?  When does biology start to go really fast?  And what does fast mean?

One answer to the question is the speed and the cost at which we can presently sequence or synthesize an interesting genetic circuit or organism.  Costs for reading genes are halving every 18 months or so, and if the rumors are true, we will hit the Thousand Dollar Genome sooner than my original estimate.  Sequencing is pretty easy at this point, as long as you already have a map to work with, which is the case for an increasing number of organisms.  And if you build the organism yourself, or pay someone else to do it, then you already know both the basic structure of the genome (the map) and the specific sequence.

At the moment, synthesis of a long gene takes about four weeks at a commercial DNA foundry, with a bacterial genome still requiring many months at best, though the longest reported contiguous synthesis job to date is still less than 50 kilobases.  And at a buck a base, hacking any kind of interesting new circuit is still expensive.  As I reported from SB 2.0, the synthesis companies are evidently now using my cost estimates as planning devices, even though that's not why made those estimates in the first place.  They project costs to continue falling by a factor of 2 approximately every year, which means that it will be another 5 years before synthesizing something the size of E. coli from scratch will cost less than US$ 1000, or 1 kilobuck.

The bigger problem, though, is the turnaround time.  No engineer or hacker wants to wait four weeks to see if a program works.  Hit compile, wait for four weeks, no "Hello World."  Start trying to debug the bug, with no debugging tools.  No thanks.  (I've actually had discussions with geneticists/molecular biologists who think even waiting a few days for a synthesis job isn't a big deal.  But what can you say -- biology just hasn't been a hacker culture.  And we are the poorer for it.)

So, Mr. Brand, it will be a few years before green hackers, at least those who aren't supported by Vinod Khosla or Kleiner Perkins, really start to have an impact.  The hackers who are lucky enough to have that kind of support, such as the blokes at Amyris Biotechnologies if their past accomplishments are anything to go by, will probably have something to show for themselves pretty soon.

The article ends with a couple of great paragraphs, which, along with "Science is the only news", are all you need to live by:

“I get bored easily — on purpose,” he said, recalling advice from the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix. “Jim Watson said he looks for young scientists with low thresholds of boredom, because otherwise you get researchers who just keep on gilding their own lilies. You have to keep on trying new things.”

That’s a good strategy, whether you’re trying to build a sustainable career or a sustainable civilization. Ultimately, there’s no safety in clinging to a romanticized past or trying to plan a risk-free future. You have to keep looking for better tools and learning from mistakes. You have to keep on hacking.