Garage ribofunk redux – DIY biohacking gaining popularity

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2010

While we’re on the subject of garage industries, here’s a piece at pop-transhumanist organ H+ Magazine on the expanding field of garage biotech [via GlobalGuerrillas; image by mknowles]. We’ve covered DIY biohackers and ribofunkers here before, but the H+ writer has a cautious optimism about the scene’s potential once the dabblers have fallen by the wayside:

It‘s not just enhancement technology that can benefit from DIYbiology. As the popular distrust of doctors grows, people will want to understand and monitor their own body. Likewise, as personalized medicine becomes a reality, we will probably see a rise in the number of hobbyists who treat their own bodies as machines to be worked on — like a radio or a car — branching out from personalized genomics to things like DIY stem cell extraction and manipulation, DIY prosthetics, DIY neural prosthetics and sensory enhancements (infrared vision, anyone?), immune system testing, and general tweaking of whatever system strikes the hobbyist‘s fancy. This hacker‘s paradise has not yet come to pass, but it is, perhaps, our exciting future.

[Given that most distrust of doctors that I’m aware of is based in religious beliefs, I’m not sure the demographics are going to overlap quite that much… though the idea of the First Church Of Jesus Christ Geneticist is an appealing story hook.]

The road to true DIYbiology will not be easy. It‘s not a magic bullet. It will probably not produce the next Bill Gates, at least not for a long time. Biology is hard, messy, and failure is more common than success. The knowledge required takes time and effort to acquire, and even then, so-called textbook knowledge is being revised almost daily. Many are attracted by the glamour of it all. They‘re drawn to the romance of being a wetware hacker — the existential thrill of tweaking life itself. They tend to become quickly disappointed by the slow, tedious, difficult path they face.

I’m struck again by the similarity between DIY biotech and Chris Anderson’s recently-mooted maker-manufacturer revolution; the latter is much closer to reaching some sort of real economic escape velocity, granted, but the essential concepts and culture behind both movements are very alike.

Personally, I’m all for the ability to mess with my meat-machine, but I think I’ll wait until the field is a little more mature before getting my wetware tweaked. After all, if a hack-mod of my computer or car goes wrong, I can always switch off and try again, or – if the worst comes to the worst – replace the broken device; to the best of my knowledge, that facility doesn’t yet exist for the human body.

However, that’s not going to stop people more desperate than myself from turning to black clinics in the hope of fixing problems that the medical establishment won’t mess with. Hell, people already fly to Eastern Europe for cheap no-questions-asked cosmetic surgery… so when some back-street lock-up in Chiba City starts promising a fix for a congenital illness, a failed organ, a missing limb or just the ravages of ageing itself, the customers will come.


NEW FICTION: WHITE SWAN by Jason Stoddard

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2010

It’s a new year, and we have new fiction at Futurismic once again, courtesy of a familiar face. We’ve published more stories by Jason Stoddard than any one other author, and if you can read White Swan and still wonder why that is… well, I don’t know what to tell you!

“White Swan” sees Jason taking on a different style and voice, and very successfully. It’s a tale of small bright hopes in a dark and difficult future, and a shining example of why optimistic sf doesn’t have to be unrealistic, trite or panglossian. Read and enjoy. 🙂

White Swan

by Jason Stoddard

The tiny room stinks of kid-sweat and puke, and greasy Portland rain, endless, rattles the thin plastic window. Little Beny thrashes in his narrow bed, clawing unseen monsters.

This is the hardest time, Lili Antila thinks.

Hardest because she knows Beny’s cries are echoing through the thin walls to reach his mother and father, who drip exhausted tears on screens bright with electronic hope. Hardest because this is when she always thinks, What if it doesn’t work this time? Hardest because it brings back gauze-wrapped memories of bright-lit hospital rooms and hard-faced doctors and soft sheets rough like sandpaper on her own changing skin–

Lili blinks back tears and turns to the wall, which is playing one of her favorite movies on a window not much bigger than her hand: Bad Girl. A black-and-white James Dunn is waxing on about his dream of owning a radio store. Lili knows what a radio store is. A physical location to house goods for sale, electronics so hopelessly primitive that they were not even interactive. She also knows it is a sad and impossible dream in the First Depression. The screen is smart enough to know this, and it displays the movie with no floaters, no contextual hints.

There is a scuffle of feet at the door. A polite noise. Lili waits for Freya to walk up behind her. She can feel Freya’s body heat in the chill room. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: WHITE SWAN by Jason Stoddard”


The Top Ten Substitutive Pieces List

C Sven Johnson @ 02-01-2010

Sven Johnson reports back from the Future Imperfect once again, rounding up the hottest body-mods, elective surgeries, prosthetic add-ons and extensions of the human condition from a year that’s probably less distant from our own than we suspect.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

***

I don’t normally care for lists, especially at this time of year when we’re inundated with “Best of the Year” lists, “Worst of the Year” lists, and of course the obligatory “New Year’s Resolution List” lists. However, as a pre-emptive strike, I thought I’d jump in with my own contribution; something perhaps a bit different than the usual fare. So without further delay, here’s my “Top Ten Substitutive Pieces List”. Continue reading “The Top Ten Substitutive Pieces List”


Microfluidic diagnostic chips are (almost) child’s play

Paul Raven @ 10-11-2009

Pity us poor Brits and our ox-bow lake of eighties pop-culture – until today I had no idea what Shrinky Dinks were. But now I know… and I also know that code 6 polystyrene sheets (which is what Shrinky Dinks are made of) can be used to make single-run prototypes of microfluidic diagnostic chips, thanks to the innovative thinking of one Michelle Kine:

she whipped up a channel design in AutoCAD, printed it out on Shrinky Dink material using a laser printer, and stuck the result in a toaster oven. As the plastic shrank, the ink particles on its surface clumped together, forming tiny ridges. That was exactly the effect Khine wanted. When she poured a flexible polymer known as PDMS onto the surface of the cooled Shrinky Dink, the ink ridges created tiny channels in the surface of the polymer as it hardened. She pulled the PDMS away from the Shrinky Dink mold, and voilà: a finished microfluidic device that cost less than a fast-food meal.

[…]

She hastens to point out that Shrinky Dink microfluidics isn’t perfect–minute ink splatters from the printer, for instance, can give rise to slight irregularities in the finished channels.

Still, glitches like these don’t pose a problem for most applications. And Khine has already found a way around a more serious difficulty: PDMS can absorb proteins, throwing off the results of sensitive tests. She has begun to make chips directly out of the Shrinky Dinks by etching the design into the plastic using syringe tips. As the plastic shrinks, the channels become narrower and deeper–perfect for microfluidics. She can even make three-dimensional chips by melting several etched Shrinky Dinks together. The whole process, from design to finished chip, takes only minutes.

Kudos, Miss Kine. Even if you’re not a microfluidics researcher, this is an impressive example of finding cheap methods for making high-tech devices – the sort of favela-budget hack that takes a technology from university laboratories to the potting sheds of the globe. I wonder what the garage biohacker crowd will make of Kine’s innovation? And what might be the next lab-grade technology to be reproduced at a fragment of the normal price using off-the-shelf stuff from the supermarket? [via BoingBoing]


Genome sequencing for <$5000

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2009

digital rendering of DNAThe title says it all, really; Californian biotech company Complete Genomics has announced publicly that it has…

… sequenced three human genomes for an average cost of $4,400. The most recently sequenced genome–which happens to be that of genomics pioneer George Church–cost just $1,500 in chemicals, the cheapest published yet. [via FuturePundit]

“So what?” you might be thinking. Well, for a start, cheaper genome sequencing will pay off fast for the medical field, as it’ll give them more data to study; also, lowering the price to “consumer” levels (albeit the sort of consumer who doesn’t flinch at the idea of laying out a few thousand bucks for a bunch of data that they themselves don’t have the training to do anything with) opens up a whole raft of potential applications, both medical and otherwise.

Other experts are downplaying Complete Genomics’ announcement, however, because the “reagent cost” of the sequencing doesn’t tell the full story:

Calculating the cost of sequencing a human genome is a tricky business–price estimates can vary depending on what’s included in the calculation. One common measure is the cost of the chemicals used, and this is what Complete Genomics used. However, this measure doesn’t incorporate the cost of the machines that do the sequencing, the human labor, or the computational effort required to assemble raw sequence information into a whole genome. “What’s important is not just the reagent costs, but also the cost of analyzing the sequence,” says Jeff Schloss, program director for technology development at the National Human Genome Research Center, in Bethesda, MD. “It’s unclear how computational costs for this method compare to some of the others.”

My guess would be that CG doesn’t really care about that, though. It looks like they’re taking a leaf from the Web2.0 playbook by rolling out the service at the lowest cost possible in order to get a good toe-hold in an emerging market: make sequencing available, and then watch your early-adopter users to see what people will actually use it for. That said, the $5,000 sequence isn’t available to the general public just yet, but I doubt it’ll be long before it is… and I doubt CG will be the only player on the field by that point, either. [image by ynse]


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