Friday, September 03, 2010

Open Source Biotechnology: The Wonder and the Terror

As recently as a decade ago, the tools and techniques for such fiddling were confined to a handful of laboratories like those at leading research universities. Today, do-it-yourself biology clubs have sprung up where part-timers share tips on how to build high-speed centrifuges, isolate genetic material, and the like. The movement has been aided by gear that can turn a backyard shed into a microbiology lab. _WSJ
With the emergence of open-source biohacking, a number of scientists and authorities are starting to worry about the possibility that a biohacker will create some type of super-microbe which could cause a significant disease outbreak. Here you can find a zipped download introduction to biohacking.
The new fear, though, is that scientific advances that enable amateur scientists to carry out once-exotic experiments, such as DNA cloning, could be put to criminal use. Many well-known figures are sounding the alarm over the revolution in biological science, which amounts to a proliferation of know-how—if not the actual pathogens.

"Certain areas of biotechnology are getting more accessible to people with malign intent," said Jonathan Tucker, an expert on biological and chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Geneticist Craig Venter said last month at the first meeting of a presidential commission on bioethics, "If students can order any [genetic sequences] online, somebody could try to make the Ebola virus."

Mr. Venter is a pioneer in the field whose creation of a synthetic organism this spring helped push the debate about the risks and rewards of bioscience from scientific journals to the corridors of power in Washington. "We are limited more by our imagination now than any technological limitations," Mr. Venter said.

Scientists have the ability to manipulate genetic material more quickly and more cheaply all the time. Just as "Moore's Law" describes the accelerating pace of advances in computer science, advances in biology are becoming more potent and accessible every year, experts note. _WSJ
Of all the things likely to escape from garage biohacking outposts, none are likely to bring about the end of the human species. Some of them may even be beneficial for health and long life.

Just as some of the fastest developments in personal computing emerged from basements and garages, so is it possible for home-based biohackers to make important contributions to bioscience and biomedicine. Curiosity drives most small scale hacking of all kinds -- the desire to understand how things work.

For humans who are interested in going beyond the ordinary in terms of lifespan, intelligence, sleep requirements, strength, speed, etc. the answers may well arise from small scale independent labs -- given how over-regulated and over-restricted all aspects of government sanctioned biomedicine are becoming in western countries.

Is there a danger? Yes, there is always a danger, and all of us should stay alert for persons who seem to be several cards short of a full deck. But that shouldn't stop us from pushing the limits.

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