'I'm interested in transitioning biology from being sort of a craft, where every time you do something it's done slightly differently, often in ad hoc ways, to an engineering discipline with standardized methods of arranging information and standardized sets of parts that you can assemble to do things.'"
To some extent, this is already done with common bacterial strains, and the plasmid vectors we already use. Most of the plasmids we use in the industry have specific sets of features such as multiple cloning sites, inducible repressors, ORIs, antibiotic resistance sites etc... You need a plasmid that has a kanamycin resistance gene, high copy number, will add a His tag to your product, and lacks cut sites for a particular restriction enzyme? It's likely in the catalogues already. And if what you're trying to assemble is already in the catalogues, it's a target that may not be worth pursing anyway, since you're unlikely to get a publication or a patent off of it.
The approach he seems to be pushing here seems to be analogous to buying a car piece by piece rather than as a pre-assembled package. The difference is that while average joe has no idea how to fabricate a synchro for his transmission, your average molecular biologist is already quite adept at designing primers and cloning fragments out of a cDNA library. The hard part for the scientists is then characterizing, validating and optimizing the expression of their target; and then later demonstrating the functionality of the product. To continue the analogy, it would be showing that the car ran, was reliable, and was safe for the passengers. Having readily available gene circuits (the famous lac operon for instance) may help with the planning and initial development, but it really won't speed up the bulk of the work we do.
I'll readily admit that many of the expression/knockout constructs are somewhat ad hoc in nature, but interoperability isn't typically a concern. The thing is that evolution is a pretty laissez faire system where "duct tape and bailing wire" construction is more often the rule than the exception. Nature cares about what works, not about what conforms to standards (codon-amino acid translation being the biggest exception that comes to mind). As a result, expression systems have to be tailored to the organism that they'll be expressed in. For instance, bacteria cannot express functional mammalian genes unless the introns are removed from the sequence first. Sufficiently large yeast proteins will cause an immune reaction because the glycosylation patterns are recognized as foreign. Many genes won't be expressed very well at all unless the regulatory elements in the flanking sequences are also included. Once you start looking at things like inducible expression and tissue-specific expression, things get even more complicated, and more varied between species. In short, it's complicated, and the idea of instituting standards to achieve interoperability between expression systems is pretty much a pipe dream.
In short, I have my doubts about the plausibility of this plan, and I'll be mighty impressed if he pulls it off.
I'm guessing that it's a one time treatment.
As I understand it, no. Since the change this produces is in the transcription/translation machinery of the cell, rather than in the DNA itself, the treatment is not permanent. Different substances are recycled in the cell at different rates (and nearly everything gets recycled at some point), with the cell rebuilding the parts that are in its genetic blueprints. Parts that aren't in the blueprints (i.e. the molecule that allows the gene to produce a protein product) do not get rebuilt. So the change is _not_ permanent.
Otherwise they would use an engineered virus to deliver the mutation to your entire body.
This is very unlikely to be used as a treatment any time in the near future. When gene therapy using viral vectors was introduced, there were several cases where it was quite successful. There were also deaths. Those deaths and the fear mongering that accompanied have created a social climate where very few people would acknowledge gene therapy as a valid treatment option.
Behind every great computer sits a skinny little geek.