1 Sep 2016

The genetic engineering ‘renaissance’

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 1 September 2016

In 2001 it cost $2.7 billion to sequence the human genome, by 2007 it was $1 million and in 2014 it was just $1000.

A scientist specialising in biotechnology, Raymond McCauley, predicts that by 2020 the cost will be measured in cents.


GE Photo: supplied

Dr McCauley was part of the team that developed the technology responsible for that exponential reduction in cost - Next Generation DNA sequencing.

He says the tools needed to alter and write DNA are also getting cheaper by the day; and he's on a mission to put those tools in as many hands as possible.

Dr McCauley is one of the founders of Biocurious, a non-profit that runs workshops for people with an interest in biotechnology and has a keen interest in developing cheap scientific instruments and releasing the specifications needed to build them for free.

He divides the fields of biotech into reading, writing and hacking.

“DNA is a digital medium just like a computer code, so if you can read, write and hack DNA, you really have access to the source code of life.”

A whole new field is emerging in gene sequencing technology, he says.

This can allow, for example, a particular genetic sequence to be identified which might show an individual’s likelihood of getting a disease.

He says genetic engineering is in the middle of a revolution and we are now not only able to read long stretches of DNA, but do something about them.

And the potential applications for this are vast.

Hacking in the context of DNA is benign - not an “evil teenager” sitting on a computer trying to hack your email, more a “white hack.”

“In the sense where we have people who want to understand how something works.

Raymond McCauley

Raymond McCauley Photo: Supplied

“You can go online and access huge databases of DNA even videos on You Tube and see how somebody has conducted an experiment.”

He says the techniques used to cut and paste DNA have become exponentially cheaper, from $10,000 per experiment with to $1,000.

“We are now in the era of drag and drop genetic engineering. You don't need a high level of education in the mechanics of DNA - it is already reaching a level of simplicity similar to software engineering.”

His non-profit Biocurious is currently involved making a cell printer and a cheap, powerful microscope with the design being open sourced so people all around the world can make them for free.

“The ethos of Biocurious is that getting more biotech tools into more hands increases the chance that a big discovery will be made.”