Biohacking—synthetic biology for the technologically marginalized

Last June I wrote a short piece on biohacking, prompted by a UK report on the social and ethical challenges of synthetic biology.  At the time, I though the aspirations of the nascent biopunk community naively optimistic, but potentially worrying.  Six months on, biohacking is hitting the mainstream press—and gaining momentum.

Image courtesy of the Synthetic Biology Project

Maybe it was just a slow news day.  Maybe the subject had substance.  Either way, a story posted yesterday by the Associated Press on home-style genetic engineering has attracted quite a bit of attention over the new services.

The story revolves around Meredith L. Patterson—a 31-year-old computer programmer who is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that glow green to signal the presence of melamine—that most recent of food-contaminants.  According to the article, Patterson

“learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.”

And if you think that sounds far out, try the group DIYBio for size. Co-founded by Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, the Cambridge Massachusetts group is setting up a community lab where people can use chemicals and lab equipment according to AP—including a used low temperature freezer, scored for free off Craigslist!

The “role models” here seem to be the info-tech underdogs made-good.  “Defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the garage” notes the AP story, while a piece appearing in the Times Online notes

“Indeed, Apple and Google were created in hobbyists’ garages, and have since gone on to change millions of lives for the better while contributing billions of dollars to the global economy.”

Unfortunately, biotech is not info-tech, although the similarities are seductive—stored information that holds detailed instructions; an ability to re-write this information to control how something behaves; access to increasingly inexpensive tools for manipulating this information; a grass-roots community working outside established institutions; and the possibility of outsiders getting one over the technological elite.

But biotech—and synthetic biology in particular—differs from information technology in a number of critical areas.  This is complex stuff—ask any biologist.  And it is going to be really tough for a self-trained “biopunk” to assimilate the knowledge and expertise to make a productive contribution to biotechnology.  Then, biology is messy.  The organic is, quite literally, “organic”—meaning that it resists being ordered and marshaled in the same way as electronic circuits are.  And at the end of the day, there is no easy off-switch to living things.

As I wrote back in June,

“when a hacker causes the digital reality in their computer to malfunction through tinkering, they can simply reboot and start again.”

The trouble is, I don’t think that these differences are going to stop the biohacker community growing.  And while I have my doubts that the community will produce the Bill Gates of biotech, I do worry that they could cause a lot of harm in trying—you know after all what they say about a little knowledge…

To date, one of the greatest safety concerns over synthetic biology has been dual use—the fear that someone will use it to create a suber-bug (or similar) for malevolent purposes.  But my greatest fear is that enthusiastic—and largely uncontrolled—amateurs will create problems out of well-intentioned ignorance.  Or more worrying still, they will intentionally develop a disruptive “creation,” just because they can.  After all, look at the origins of many computer viruses.

There are some ways in which harmful garage activities could be curbed—suppliers of DNA sequences monitoring who is purchasing what for example.  But this is an area that has so far been woefully under-investigated.

A new suite of projects recently announced by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation will hopefully make in-roads into the safe development of synthetic biology.  But time is short, the stakes are high, and it’s going to take more than a few foundation grants to get this right.

In the meantime, the Meredith L. Patterson’s of this world are issuing a rallying call to the technologically marginalized—saying you too can play with the big boys and girls at the game of life.

And it won’t be long before they really can…

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Update 12/27/08:  for more information on synthetic biology, check out the Synthetic Biology Project at the Wilson Center

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