Backyard biotech

Lego DNAWe’ve mentioned garage-sized biotech start-ups before, but not everyone’s in it for the money. As the price barrier to genetic engineering falls, some folk are hacking genes in an attempt to make the world a better place – like Meredith Patterson, for example:

The 31-year-old ex-computer programmer and now biohacker is working on modifying jellyfish genes and adding them to yoghurt to detect the toxic chemical melamine, which was found in baby milk in China last year after causing a number of deaths, and kidney damage to thousands of infants. Her idea is to engineer yoghurt so that in the presence of the toxin it turns fluorescent green, warning the producer that the food is contaminated. If her experiment is successful, she will release the design into the public domain.

Great stuff… but as the article at The Guardian points out, easy-entry biohacking presents as many risks as it offers fixes:

… Helen Wallace of GeneWatch in the UK thinks biohacking could be dangerous. “It is increasingly easy to order genes by mail,” she says. “Something like smallpox is hard to get, but there are other organisms that could become harmful. If you change a living organism’s properties, you could also change its interactions with the environment or the human body.” She adds: “Scientists are notorious for not seeing the unintended consequences.”

“Where is the oversight?” asks another interviewee, and it’s a good point. Will a self-policing global community of genetic scientists emerge, keeping an eye on one another and sharing data in the hopes of collaborating their way to success? The tools are there to enable it, at least.

Of course, it would be easy for individuals to slip through the cracks if they really wanted to… but the same is true of the old system as well. Maybe the best way to make sure we don’t get wiped out by a rogue scientist is to do the best we can to avoid making them feel disenfranchised and unappreciated. [image by mknowles]

2 thoughts on “Backyard biotech”

  1. Bold statement and I invite everyone to disagree with me:

    … the ONLY way to make sure people will not use biogenetic technologies for terrorism, is to make sure the people’s level of enfranchisement matches their access to these technologies. Exclusion >> resentment >> a diffuse statistical increase in irrational (suicidal) terrorism.

    People need something to lose. If they do not have, they have nothing to live for. Some will fade away harmless, some will NOT.

    Motto: make sure you have access to these technologies so you can hold the world implictly hostage and the world has good reason to keep you enfranchised.

  2. “modifying jellyfish genes and adding them to yoghurt to detect the toxic chemical melamine”

    Ha ha, good luck with that. I didn’t know jellyfish could metabolise melamime 😉

    However, jellyfish-derived green fluorescent protein is a standard marker for GMO.

    The methods are hardly secret, nor are the ‘designs’ (the BioNet methods&reagents newsgroup dates back to the stone age and most research results in publications with detailed methodology!)

    It’s the applications that are the bitch. Would I want to buy the resulting yoghurt? (no!) Would this work in practice? (No! On almost every level).

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