27 July 2008

The Church of Openness

In Digital Code of Life, I explained at length - some would say at excessive length - how the Human Genome Project was a key early demonstration of the transformative power of openness. Here's one of the key initiators of that project, George Church, who wants to open up genomics even more. Why? Because:

Exponentials don't just happen. In Church's work, they proceed from two axioms. The first is automation, the idea that by automating human tasks, letting a computer or a machine replicate a manual process, technology becomes faster, easier to use, and more popular. The second is openness, the notion that sharing technologies by distributing them as widely as possible with minimal restrictions on use encourages both the adoption and the impact of a technology.

And Church believes in openness so much, he's even applying to his sequencer:

In the past three years, more companies have joined the marketplace with their own instruments, all of them driving toward the same goal: speeding up the process of sequencing DNA and cutting the cost. Most of the second-generation machines are priced at around $500,000. This spring, Church's lab undercut them all with the Polonator G.007 — offered at the low, low price of $150,000. The instrument, designed and fine-tuned by Church and his team, is manufactured and sold by Danaher, an $11 billion scientific-equipment company. The Polonator is already sequencing DNA from the first 10 PGP volunteers. What's more, both the software and hardware in the Polonator are open source. In other words, any competitor is free to buy a Polonator for $150,000 and copy it. The result, Church hopes, will be akin to how IBM's open-architecture approach in the early '80s fueled the PC revolution.

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