Biohacking—synthetic biology for the technologically marginalized

December 26, 2008

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! Read the rest of this entry »

Indecent exposure

December 1, 2008

Navigating the minefield of airborne nanoparticle exposure

cnt-handling-smallNanotechnology—like other emerging technologies—presents a dilemma:  If you’re making new substances with uncertain health risks, how low is low enough when it comes to managing exposure?

The issue is raised in the current edition of Nature Nanotechnology by Vladimir Murashov of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and former NIOSH-director John Howard.  But the question has been bubbling along for some time.

And it’s an important one.  Uncertainty over safe workplace practices is bad news for nanotech businesses trying to do the right thing—especially small start-ups that don’t have the resources to work out their own bespoke solutions.  It’s not much better for regulators—as the gap between emerging technologies and solid information on their safe use widens, how do you craft new approaches to protecting people’s health and the environment? Read the rest of this entry »

Taking a fresh look at nanomaterials

November 11, 2008

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report on Novel Materials

Imagine for one naïve moment that we have a pretty good handle on managing the environmental impact of existing manufactured “stuff”.  Then someone comes along and invents some “new stuff” that behaves very differently from the “old stuff.”

How can we be sure that the frameworks and mechanisms in place for preventing harm to the environment will work for the new stuff?  And where they are strained to breaking point, how do we go about fixing the system?

These are two questions addressed in a new report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution—an independent British standing body established in 1970 to advise the Queen, government, Parliament and the public on environmental issues… Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnology and cosmetics

November 6, 2008

UK Consumer Organization Which? Releases New Report

Who needs an emerging technologies blog when you have The Daily Mail?  For those of you that missed it, Wednesday’s on-line issue of the British tabloid newspaper highlighted

“The beauty creams with nanoparticles that could poison your body”

I’m so glad someone’s tracking this issue, while us folks over on the other side of the pond are dealing with the considerably less-interesting issues surrounding the incoming Obama administration.  The only trouble is, the Mail didn’t quite get it right.  In fact on a scale of 1 – 10, I’m not even sure they even make it to first base… Read the rest of this entry »

Resolving the carbon nanotube identity crisis

October 31, 2008

Twelve months ago today I held a bag of multi-walled carbon nanotubes up before a hearing of the U.S. House Science Committee.  I wanted to emphasize the discrepancy between the current state of the science on carbon nanotubes, and a tendency to classify this substance as the relatively benign material graphite from a safety perspective.  So it is perhaps fitting that on the anniversary of that congressional hearing, the US Environmental Protection Agency is making it clear that carbon nanotubes are in fact, a new substance—and should be regulated as such. Read the rest of this entry »

Shaking up the nano-food debate

October 20, 2008

Is the RBC Life Sciences® nanotechnology product Slim Shake approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?  According to the BBC Radio 4 science program Frontiers—broadcast on Monday evening—there may be some doubt.  But I get ahead of myself.

The US-based company RBC Life Sciences® sells a range of dietary supplements and food products allegedly based on nanotechnology—8 of them are listed in the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies public inventory of nanotech-enabled consumer products.  As with many of the products in the inventory, it’s hard to tell whether they are truly using nanotechnology, and even harder to tell what steps have been made to assure their safety.  But Monday’s edition of Frontiers shed a little light on this issue… Read the rest of this entry »

Value-added nanotechnology

September 3, 2008

Amidst the cacophony of debate swirling around the true meaning of nanotechnology, I head a voice or reason last week.  The voice was that of Dr. Bernd Sachweh of BASF, speaking at the European Aerosol Conference in Thessoloniki.

I paraphrase, but the essence of Bernd’s point was this:

‘Nano’ is not a thing or a product.  It has no intrinsic value.  Rather, ‘nano’ adds value; it changes the properties and the worth of something that already exists.

I must confess, I rather like the idea of ‘nano’ as adding value, rather than being an entity in and of itself.  It’s hard to come up with of an example where engineering something at the nanoscale leads to behaviour or functionality that is independent of the starting material.  Rather, the great potential of nanotechnology would seem to be in taking raw materials and engineering them in ways that lead to the emergence of novel scale-related properties, which can then be used in new and innovative ways. 

But what I really like about the concept of added-value is that it provides insight into how nanotechnology might be approached from an oversight perspective.   Read the rest of this entry »