Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Real Threat of Genetic Engineering

Opponents of genetic engineering have displayed a real failure of imagination. The threat of genetic engineering in the hands of corporations is nothing compared to the hands of the people.

Though corporations are incredibly powerful, they are also incredibly visible and incredibly predictable. The big ag biotech companies all operate out of enormous industrial parks, are inhabited by thousands of people who care just as much about their communities as you do, and advertise what they're working on incessantly.

Capitalism is a powerful tool for the generation of wealth, and it's simply a matter of regulation and redistribution whenever a society holds non-laissez faire values. Most instances of corporate "crime" are no more than the failure of a government to enforce the values that its people expect. I don't know anyone who thinks that the U.S. government is as effective as it could be, but overall it really does an excellent job through regulatory organizations such as the USDA, EPA and FDA.

You may have a philosophical axe to grind against Microsoft, but the reality is they're always being watched and they get sued when they step out of bounds. Individual hackers concern me a lot more since they have extremely diverse motivations and are completely under the radar until something goes wrong.

There is currently a very active amateur genetic engineering movement. By all accounts, their accomplishments have been laughably rudimentary - on par with mid-level college biology labs - but it won't be this way a few years from now. The equipment, techniques and reagents necessary for genetic engineering are rapidly advancing in effectiveness while their costs crater (e.g. the cost of sequencing DNA is falling faster than Moore's Law).

What will happen when anyone can create, manipulate and release life?

I don't think we can predict the ramifications of this, but it will certainly be at least as revolutionary as our burgeoning personal integration into the Internet. The cutting edge of genetic engineering is quickly climbing into the science fiction realm,* is mostly open access, and can be well approximated with homebuilt equipment and common chemicals. I can't imagine the solution to this, but we'll have to start thinking about it pretty soon...

* Have you seen this? Scientists have removed the disease-causing genes from the HIV virus, and used it as a vehicle for gene therapy, possibly curing two children of a neurodegenerative condition.


  1. That's a great point.

    Several years ago I remember calculating that I could sell my car, use the money to buy reagents and pick up some very used lab equipment on ebay and with my current skillset be able to replicate this group's work synthesizing polio from scratch:

    Of course that's assuming everything worked right the first time. Given my normal success rate with PCR and ligations, the cost would have been a lot higher. My car has substantially depreciated since then, but the cost of doing molecular biology keeps going down as well.

  2. haha very true.

    I'm amazed at how quick it's becoming easy to do things that used to be really hard - from the commercial availability of optimized, fool-proof kits and reagents to our increasing knowledge of what exactly a gene sequence needs in order to get expressed as intended.

  3. I've raised this issue before as well. But many of the same folks who scream at Monsatan think this democratization of science is nothing but sweet.

    I found myself in a conversation with someone who was totally opposed to GE and totally supportive of biohacking. I had to laugh (and I did, I know that probably didn't help me to win my argument). I couldn't get him to understand what he was endorsing.

    And then I decided, fine--when I retire I'll create items in my basement fun and profit. And I can....



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