The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering

C Sven Johnson @ 30-09-2009

Sven Johnson reports back from the Future Imperfect once again. This time the IP boot is on the other foot, as a keen gamer casts a copyrighted GM crop in an extremely unfavourable light

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

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I suppose I don’t need to ask how many of you have succumbed to the latest “farm game” revival craze. If you’re reading this column you’re almost certainly playing Genetic Seed, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of post-aquapocalyptic, real-time strategy MMOs; this one the obvious offspring of such classics as Food Risk and Germplasm II. However, if you’ve somehow remained oblivious and don’t want to google for an explanation, think of it as the cross-pollinated spawn of a scorched-earth Spore and one of those open source gene-splicing applications… only instead of critters, you play God with the plant life. The better your clan’s food, the stronger its fighters, the bouncier the babes, and so on. Continue reading “The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering”


A spoonful of friendly bacteria helps the medicine go down

Tom James @ 21-08-2009

pillsGenetically engineered bacteria have been used to deliver therapies for bowel disorders like inflammatory bowel disease:

The bacterium is able to deliver the protein, a human growth factor called KGF-2, directly to the damaged cells that line the gut, unlike other treatments which can cause unwanted side effects. Also unlike other treatments, it is envisaged that patients will be able to control the medication themselves by ingesting xylan, perhaps in the form of a drink.

I am not 1 of the 400 Britons who suffers from IBD but it is wonderful to see that genetic engineering has such excellent medical applications.

[from Science Daily][image from Deco Fernandez on flickr]


Garage ribofunk – the rise of homebrew genetic engineering

Paul Raven @ 15-05-2009

digital rendering of DNAHere’s another story that keeps bouncing back… and receiving progressively more paranoid coverage the closer it gets to mainstream news sources, too. That said, a certain amount of concern about biohacking or DIY genetic engineering is probably sensible – as much as most of the hobbyists brewing up weird bugs in their broom-closets are the sort of cheery can-do geeks who want to help, the ever-lowering barriers to entry of these technologies mean that it wouldn’t take much for someone with more nefarious purposes in mind to get themselves started:

… some researchers and law-enforcement officials have raised red flags. In a paper published in Nature Biotechnology in 2007, a group of scientists and FBI officials called for better oversight of so-called synthetic DNA, an ingredient widely used by professional biologists and hobbyists, saying it could theoretically lead to the creation of harmful viruses like Ebola or smallpox, since their genomes are available online. “Current government oversight of the DNA-synthesis industry falls short of addressing this unfortunate reality,” the paper said.

Ms. Aull, who lives with a cat and three roommates who are “a little bit weirded out” by her experiments, says the worries are overblown. DIY biologists are trying to “build a slingshot,” she says, “and there are people out there talking about, oh, no, what happens if they move on to nuclear weapons?”

Other biohackers argue that Mother Nature is more likely than any home hobbyist to create dangerous new pathogens. They cite the current A/H1N1 “swine flu” virus, which is a made-in-the-wild brew of human, bird and pig influenzas. Mackenzie Cowell, a founder of DIY Bio, says members aim to do good and are committed to working safely.

Frankly, I’m quite surprised that this movement hasn’t been stamped on more thoroughly and quickly; the post-9/11 world hasn’t exactly been kind to anything that can raise a pulse (and sell newspapers) simply by having the word ‘terrorism’ bolted on to it. Perhaps the DHS see themselves in a future alliance with the Shapers against those pesky Mechanist kids from cyberspace[via PosthumanBlues; image by ynse]


Framing cloning – the media and genetic science

Paul Raven @ 24-04-2009

mannequin clonesCloning stories are like buses; you wait for ages, then three come along at once. This has been one of those weeks, it appears, with the tale of yet another outsider scientist claiming to have successfully cloned a human being taking the lion’s share of the spotlight. [image by antmoose]

New Scientist takes a look at the way self-styled pioneers like Zavos court media attention for their activities, and calls them out as – at best – manipulative and misleading:

It doesn’t help that the latest coverage includes a picture of a little girl killed in a car crash – and whose cells were cloned through hybridisation purely for study – alongside a headline in the paper describing her as “The little girl who could ‘live’ again”.

This perpetuates the cruel myth and widespread misconception that cloning is a way of raising the dead. In fact, if it worked, it would simply be a way of creating an identical twin of whoever was cloned, but separated in time.

To some extent, science fiction can be blamed for misconceptions about cloning. The more serious and thoughtful books on the subject have been somewhat overshadowed by sensationalist TV and movie plots or the technophobia of writers in the Michael Crichton mould.

But that’s not for want of the facts being available; as the known sf geek in my local social circle, people ask me about topics like cloning quite a bit, and I try to give them the most realistic overview of the topic I can. It rarely works. The truth is not as compelling a story as a rogue-science thriller or a riff plucked out on the heart-strings. Perhaps I’m just not a good enough storyteller.

But hey – at least we get some cute headlines alongside the shock-horror stories and emotional grandstanding of hucksters. Look – glow-in-the-dark puppies!

All together now: aaaawwwww!


Backyard biotech

Paul Raven @ 20-03-2009

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]


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