Low-Cost DNA Production Roadmap

by Eric Drexler on 2008/12/21

George Church, a leading DNA researcher

I’ve just posted the previously unavailable Low-Cost DNA Production Roadmap [pdf] prepared by the remarkable George Church. In preparing to write about prospects for radical DNA cost reductions today, I found that this contribution had been accidentally omitted from the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems. Since George prepared the document as a followup to a discussion we had last year, I’m taking the liberty of posting it here now.

How radical are the potential reductions in cost? Today, synthetic DNA oligomers are commonly sold on a per-base-pair basis, with quantities in the 10 microgram range and prices in the dollars-per-microgram range. This is a reasonable price for an information molecule, but absurdly high for a material. Even in larger quantities, synthetic DNA is very expensive: from a current, competitive source, several thousand dollars per gram. George Church makes a persuasive argument that synthetic biology techniques can be used to drop the cost to perhaps several dollars per kilogram, a factor on the order of one million, making cost of DNA more like that of biopolymers such as protein and wood.

George notes two key requirements for implementation:

  1. Engineering of [more efficient] nucleotide synthesis: We are collaborating with Philippe Marliere on optimizing metabolic pathways to the synthesis of the four dNTPs in vivo.
  2. DNA secretion: This is a natural process in some bacteria, could be enhanced to prevent (potentially toxic) levels of DNA in vivo.

Reducing production costs is important because DNA is central to structural DNA technology, which in turn is central to emerging approaches for building modular molecular composite nanosystems. A radically lower cost would greatly expand the range of potential applications.

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