Saturday, January 30, 2010

Outlaw (DIY) Biology Symposium

The Outlaw Biology: Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio symposium is currently running at UCLA.

This whole genetic-engineering-in-your-garage movement scares me - particularly with all the anti-establishment language recorded by DIYbio's post. It's really easy to picture some malcontent reproducing some formerly-extinct human pathogen or changing the transmissibility of a living one. We're not there yet, but eventually we'll also be capable of creating organisms that affect ecosystems in really meaningful ways. It's easy to think of good and bad results of this (waves of new invasive organisms or acid-tolerant reef-building corals?) but I suppose it's all totally moot. It's going to happen in our lifetimes and no amount of regulation can stop it (not here, not in China...).

I guess the only solution if for professionals to get involved in the movement and encourage its development. Maybe if citizens get as involved in genetic engineering as they are with software and the Internet we can dilute out and keep an eye on the cranks.

Thoughts?

h/t: DIYbio

4 comments:

  1. I'm not sure how directly the concepts of open source software will map onto biology, but its clear that the DIYbio people are going to give it a shot and it is refreshing to read of people EXCITED about molecular biology for a change. (Though I'm guessing most will be less excited the 10th time their PCR reaction fails in a row.)

    On the other hand, I'm having trouble reading the term "hacking DNA" with a straight face, and it is disconcerting to realize you and I would both probably be considered part of big bio by this group of people.

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  2. I agree with all those points.

    The effusive use of "hackerisms" makes it sound like they're more excited to portray themselves as scifi pioneers than to actually understand the system well enough to make useful stuff. I'm reminded of an anecdote from a previous DIY gen eng conference where one poster described the "discovery" that not all plasmids can be grown in all bacteria...

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  3. I have trouble getting to worried about this. The analogy to computer hacking is not very good, I don't think. All the professional computer programmers I know (which includes a good percentage of my family) also "hack" to some degree or the other at home, for fun. None of the genetic engineers I know do. It is just WAY harder and more time consuming and more expensive to bioengineer something interesting than to write a cool little program. I suspect most of the stuff to come out of home "hackers" would be along the lines of sticking GFP in various organisms -- which is kinda cool, would get TONS of freaked out media coverage (glowing rabbits found in central park!!!!!!) and have no real ecological effect.

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  4. Hmm. Interesting point. Hopefully this is one of those issues that sounds a lot scarier than it actually is.

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