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 »

Late lessons from early warnings

July 20, 2008

As the rate of technological progress advances, are we learning the lessons of past successes and failures?  And are we applying these lessons successfully to nanotechnology? 

In 2001, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a seminal report on developing emerging technologies responsibly.  Through a series of fourteen case studies spanning the past century, a panel led by the late Poul Harremoës examined what has gone right and what has gone wrong with the introduction of past technologies, and what can be learned about introducing new technologies as safely and as successfully as possible.  

The resulting report, “Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000” (PDF, 1.7 MB) draws twelve “late lessons” for decision-makers faced with addressing emerging technologies [1]. Read the rest of this entry »

Nano-sunscreens leave their mark

June 21, 2008

Painted metal roofs are cheap, convenient, and usually very durable.  But over the past two years, a rash of accelerated ageing has blighted pre-painted steel roofing in Australia.  And intriguingly the ageing—which affects the coating—seems to be localized to small patches, taking on the form of fingerprints, handprints and even footprints.

The culprit it seems is sunscreen that is spilt or otherwise transferred to the roofing by construction workers during installation. And not any old sunscreen—this would appear to be a uniquely nano phenomenon.  But I get ahead of myself… Read the rest of this entry »

Smart materials; smart choices?

May 31, 2008

Why nano?  Why care?  For non-nanotech initiates, an obsession with nanotechnology must sometimes seem a bizarre occupation of the sad and lonely.  And even within the nanotechnology community, who hasn’t had occasional doubts over the legitimacy of singling out “nano” as something special?  Yet occasionally a piece of work comes along that helps put things back into perspective.  For me, a paper just published on-line in the journal Nano Letters did exactly that. Read the rest of this entry »

Carbon nanotubes: the new asbestos? Not if we act fast.

May 21, 2008

Mix carbon nanotubes and asbestos together (metaphorically) and you get an explosive mix—at least if news coverage of the latest publication coming out of Professor Ken Donaldson’s team is anything to go by.  The research—published on-line today in Nature Nanotechnology—is the first to explicitly test the hypothesis that long carbon nanotubes behave like long asbestos fibres in the body.

In brief, the study (which I was a co-author on) used an established method to test whether a fibrous material has the potential to lead to the disease mesothelioma—a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs that can take decades to develop following exposure.  In the method, samples of material are injected into the abdominal space of mice, where inflammation and the formation of granulomas in the lining tissue (the mesothelium) are studied over a seven-day period.  Previous research has established that the combined presence of fibres, inflammation and granulomas is a very strong indicator that mesothelioma will occur in the long-term.  While the method uses lining of the abdominal space, it is highly predictive of what happens in the same tissue surrounding the lungs, if it is exposed to durable fibres. Read the rest of this entry »

Decoupling “nanotechnology”

May 17, 2008

“Nanotechnology” as an overarching concept is great for sweeping statements and sound bites, but falls short when it comes to real-world decision-making.  As nanoscale technologies are increasingly used in everything from antimicrobial socks to anti-cancer drugs, perhaps its time to rethink how we talk about the myriad diverse technologies that fall, slip or are forcibly squeezed under this all-encompassing banner. Read the rest of this entry »

Nano-silver: Looking a little tarnished?

May 2, 2008

The author Neal Stephenson got it wrong—at least, if this week’s nano-news is anything to go by!   In his landmark 1995 novel “The Diamond Age,” Stephenson described a future built on nano-innovation.  But thirteen years later, nanotechnology seems to be ushering in “The Silver Age.”  And to some it’s looking a little tarnished.

First we had Cal Baier-Anderson’s entry on the Environmental Defence Fund nanotech blog, calling claims that bacteria cannot develop resistance to silver “not only false, but dangerous.”  Two days later, the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) filed a petition with the USEPA requesting the agency regulate nano-silver products as pesticides.  And to top it all, Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss completed the hat trick with a story on nano-silver in Friday’s edition of the paper. Read the rest of this entry »

U.S. nanotechnology risk research funding—separating fact from fiction

April 18, 2008

The most recent estimate from the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) puts nanotechnology risk research investment at $68 million for 2006 (the only year complete figures are currently available for—apparently).  Yet theProject on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has just completed its own assessment—and could only find $13 million associated with research projects primarily focused on addressing nanotechnology risk in the same year.  What gives—are the feds indulging in a bit of creative accounting; or have PEN forgotten the basic rules of arithmetic?

Let’s be honest, I’m not a great fan of bean-counting.  Evaluating research in terms of dollars invested (or Pounds or Euros) is a crude tool at the best of times.  But when it comes to assessing investments and returns, the fact is that bottom-line figures count.   Read the rest of this entry »

I’m breathing in nanoparticles, so why aren’t I dead already?

April 5, 2008

Read some accounts of nanotechnology risks, and you might be forgiven for concluding that a single engineered nanoparticle can kill you.  Of course, a little critical thinking soon dispels this notion—we are constantly bombarded with incidental nanoparticles from sources that include cars, incinerators and fires; we have been since birth.  And as critics of “risk extremists” often point out, we seem to be doing just fine in this nano-rich environment.  But does this mean that the potential risks associated with engineered nanoparticles are little more than a myth?

This was the question I faced while writing an opinions piece for the latest issue of Nano Today.  It’s a question that’s constantly popping up, either because someone has forgotten (or never realized) that nanoparticle exposure is a fact of life, or as a justification for not worrying about the engineered varieties of nanoparticles. Read the rest of this entry »

Communicating nanotechnology: Image counts!

February 8, 2008

What determines your view of nanotechnology—the message, or the messenger?  Most of us would like to think it is the message that governs our internal risk-benefit analysis.  But research published this week suggests other factors may be at work.

Dan Kahan at Yale Law School and his colleagues are shaking up our ideas on effective communication and engagement when it comes to complex issues like emerging nanotechnologies.  They have already demonstrated what many jaded science communicators have learned the hard way—that shouting louder and longer about the facts doesn’t necessarily lead to “right-minded” thinking in the general population.*  In their latest study (available here) they show that when it comes to balancing possible nanotechnology benefits and risks, the messenger is quite possibly as important as the message. Read the rest of this entry »

Labels of contention

February 1, 2008

Labeling – is there anything more contentious in the safe nanotech debate?  Some are fearful that too much knowledge will confuse and worry muddle-headed consumers.  Others can only see the marketing opportunities of a “nano-inside” label. Then you have the nano-doomsday merchants, who seemingly would like nothing better than to slap a bright yellow nano-hazard sticker on all things small.

And of course, we cannot forget those “magic” nano products – not the surface treatment that allegedly messed people’s lungs up (which was neither magic, nor nano) – but those items which miraculously change from “nano-enabled” to “nano-no-more” at the wave of a marketing executive’s wand. Read the rest of this entry »

Synthetic biology and nanotechnology

January 26, 2008

The popular computer game “SimLife” allows users to create and manipulate virtual people.  But what are the chances of us one day being able to do the same with real organisms: building new life-forms out of basic chemicals, so “SimLife” becomes “SynLife”?

This week’s announcement by J. Craig Venter’s team (and the associated paper in Science) that they have successfully synthesized the complete genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium is an important step towards achieving what is becoming known as “synthetic biology”.  By constructing complete DNA sequences from scratch, the door is being opened to transforming common laboratory chemicals into new living organisms; that are engineered with specific purposes in mind.  And perhaps not surprisingly, this manipulation of DNA at the nanoscale is increasingly being seen as part of the “nanotechnology revolution”.

But is synthetic biology really nanotechnology? Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotechnology in context – Size matter

November 1, 2007

In July 2007, a specially convened task force of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that size does in fact matter (FDA 2007).  The focus of the task force was not on the importance of “largeness”, but rather on the technology of the unimaginably small—nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the technology of manipulating matter at near-atomic levels; typically, but not exclusively, within the size range of 1 – 100 nanometers.  Working at this scale, it becomes possible to combine materials in ways and forms unimaginable more than a few decades ago.  Imagine the contrast between eighteenth century surgery and modern microsurgery, and you begin to get an idea of what this emerging technology offers.

According to the FDA task force, “properties of a material relevant to the safety and (as applicable) effectiveness of FDA-regulated products might change repeatedly as size enters into or varies within the nanoscale range”. But as Professor James Moor and Professor John Wecker point out in the Spring 2007 edition of Medical Ethics [PDF, 805 KB], nanotechnology not only raises safety and regulatory issues, but ethical questions as well (Moor and Wecker 2007). Read the rest of this entry »