In a News&Views just published in Molecular Systems Biology, Joachim Henkel & Stephen Maurer expose their views on the economics of synthetic biology (Henkel and Maurer, 2007):
Synthetic biology contains almost all of the same ingredients that make embedded Linux successful. First, synthetic biology’s parts approach emphasizes strong modularity. This allows the work of creating a parts library to be spread over many companies. It also makes it possible for companies to earn profits by patenting some parts while making others openly available. Second, we expect companies to have fairly idiosyncratic parts needs. This means that they cannot simply ‘free ride’ by waiting for others to make what they need. It also suggests that companies can often share parts without losing their technological ‘edge’ to competitors. Third, different companies will have different expertise. This suggests that community-based libraries will often outperform company ones. Finally, the synthetic biology market will probably include large numbers of small, idiosyncratic customers. This makes patent licensing less lucrative and, by comparison, openness more attractive.
Synthetic biology is defined around the concept of standardized re-usable parts. A piece of C++ code is very very very well behaved and therefore highly suitable for a development model based on sharing parts. In synthetic biology, as Ron Weiss writes (Andrianantoandro et al, 2006),
the engineering strategies of standardization, decoupling, and abstraction can also be useful tools for dealing with the complexity of living systems…The above engineering strategies come from disciplines where components are well behaved, easy to isolate from each other, and can subsist in isolation. The strategies must be adapted to work well in the biological realm, where biological components cannot exist without being connected….Design and fabrication methods that take into account uncertainty and context dependence will likely lead to on-demand, just-in-time customization of biological devices and components, which need not behave perfectly. Building imperfect systems is acceptable, as long as they perform tasks adequately."
How close will synthetic biology come to something like object-oriented programming?
The future will tell how far the analogy with the “embedded Linux” model can be extended and whether the economics of synthetic biology will be influenced by how “well behaved” and complex synthetic parts are.