Silicon Insider: The Unreported Revolution

What was the biggest press failure in recent history?

The boosterism of the national media in the dot-com bubble? Close. The New York Times /Jayson Blair debacle? Closer.The obvious bias of the Los Angeles Times in the California Recall? Almost.

No, in the eyes of history, the biggest media disaster of our time is one of omission: the manifest, across-the-board failure of the press to educate itself and the general public on the progress and implications of the biotechnology revolution.

This is a revolution that will transform our lives in ways we can't even imagine. It will likely redefine what it means to be human, and to be alive or dead. It will rewrite the meaning of beauty, health and intelligence, of parenthood, and even of self. And, more than any single event in recorded history, it will change the very direction and fate of the species. There is no bigger story than this — and it is not being covered.

This is professional negligence and malpractice of the highest order. A failure so complete that the press feels no guilt about it, and the public doesn't even understand it is being ill-served.

The assumption seems to be that if anything important happens in biotech, we'll hear about it. But will we? And even if we do — what if it is too late to do anything about it? Are we really willing to leave the big moral questions to industry insiders? Is this really the position we want to be in vis-à-vis the most important story of our time?

Revolution in Gene Chips

What got me thinking about this was a brief new product announcement made recently by Affymetrix for a new gene chip, the Human Plus Array. Have you ever heard of Affymetrix? Do you know what a gene chip is?

No? Then let me explain, based upon my own limited knowledge. A gene chip is a small glass chip containing an internal matrix similar to that found in integrated circuits about twenty years ago (in fact, some of these chips have been fabricated using old semiconductor equipment). Into this matrix, biotech companies such as Affymetrix, Agilent and Applied Biosystems, all of Silicon Valley, insert fragments of the 35,000 known human genes.

In practice, doctors and researchers can inject these chips with a blood sample or other fluid and then 'read' how different parts of the genome react to that sample. In theory, this will lead to the development of drugs and even genetic therapies custom-designed for each patient. It is also the first step in the long march to true bio-silicon interfaces — such as memory chips for the brain.

The Affymetrix announcement represents a milestone, in that for the first time all of 35,000 genes have been stuffed onto a single chip — effectively cutting in half the price for the industry standard two-chip set to about $300-$500 per chip.

Both Agilent and Applied Biosystems have responded to the announcement by noting that their two-chip sets contain longer fragments than those found on the Human Plus Array, and thus, they claim, are more sensitive and offer better performance. Meanwhile, you can be sure they are rushing out their own one chip solutions.

The Biotech Train Is Roaring

Have you heard this kind of competitive trash talk before? Sure, it's the voice of the digital world, from software to PCs to servers. What you're hearing is the sound of Moore's Law in action. And you know what that means.

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