Garage biotech... or bring on the biotech hackers (7/7/2006)

Today CS Prakash's AgBioView approvingly posted several items on "garage biotech".

One of Prakash's pieces was edited so that it didn't include the following on this libertarian trend, "Soon enough, thousands, and then tens of thousands of biotech hackers will be joining in..."

The only danger, it seems, that confronts these freewheeling techno-utopians is that "ignorant, misguided, meddling politicians and bureaucrats" may get in the way with "regulation, taxation, hostility to economic and research freedom, and centralized control", leading to "something that looks much like the old Soviet Union"!!!

Interestingly, the example of authoritarian suppression that keeps being quoted - that of Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble - just happens to involve someone who's been raising questions about GMOs.

Some other non-Soviet style limiting factors are admitted. As Drew Endy, a biological engineering professor at MIT, explains to Wired News, "Even though it's cheap it's extraordinarily difficult. The technology isn't reliable enough."

And there's another problem, says Endy. "A lot of people, to be blunt about it, are not comfortable with taking responsibility for the manipulation of genetics."

Such quaint considerations are of little concern to the Biotech Hobbyist Collective and their pursuit of "non-prescribed uses" for biotech. How long, one wonders, before some dysfunctional techno-nerds provide us with a Biotech Holocaust Collective and we stop just worrying about what they're getting up to in Fort Detrick?

Garage Biotech and Suppression by Regulation
from Today in AgBioView - July 7, 2006

As a follow-up to my most recent post on a future of garage biotechnology - a future that could look much like present day open source software development, rife with possibilities; ever more efficient, ever better - you might want to read this rather depressing piece from Wired (see above)

Imagine where we'd be today if prosecutors and regulators were breathing down the necks of the early computer hobbyists in the 70s. These groups were part of a culture that gave rise to a huge industry and an ongoing empowerment of the common person far greater than any that has come before. Imagine if those people had not been able to obtain basic parts, if no company would sell to them, if innovation in computing had been squashed down to whatever happened within the conceptual boxes of a few large pre-existing companies and university departments. Government employees are not enablers of progress - they are millstones; the glue in the works; the boot on the neck.

As I've said before, of the challenges facing the future of healthy life extension research and the growth of beneficial biotechnology, it is ignorant, misguided, meddling politicians and bureaucrats that worry me the most.

At the end of their road of regulation, taxation, hostility to economic and research freedom, and centralized control lies something that looks much like the old Soviet Union - and each step towards that end is a step away from better medicine and longer, healthier lives.

Tweaking Genes in the Basement
- Allen Riddell|, Wired, July 6, 2006

In the 1970s, before the PC era, there were computer hobbyists. A group of them formed the Homebrew Computer Club in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 to trade integrated circuits and swap tips on assembling rudimentary computers, like the Altair 8800, a rig with no inputs or outputs and memory measured in kilobytes.

Among the Club's members were Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. As the tools of biotechnology become accessible (and affordable) to a wider public for the first time, hobbyists are recapturing that collaborative ethos and applying it to tinkering with the building blocks of life.

Eugene Thacker is a professor of literature, culture and communications at Georgia Tech and a member of the Biotech Hobbyist collective. Just as the computer hobbyists sought unconventional applications for computer circuitry, the new collective is looking for "non-prescribed uses" of biotechnology, Thacker said.

The group has published a set of informal DIY articles, mimicking the form of the newsletters and magazines of the computer hobbyists -- many of which are archived online. Thacker walks readers through the steps of performing a basic computation using a DNA "computer" in his article "Personal Biocomputing" (PDF). The tools for the project include a $100 high school-science education kit and some used lab equipment.

Other how-to articles guide readers through cultivating skin cells and "Tree Cloning" -- making uniform copies of plant tissue. Thacker calls the spirit of his article "playful," but adds that it's entirely possible that hobbyists could be part of the future of important biotechnology.

"The people in the Homebrew Computing Club didn't all aim to be Bill Gates," Thacker said. "Nobody knew what was going to happen. There was an interest in the technology as it first became accessible to people who didn't work in big corporations."

The Collective is the inspiration of Natalie Jeremijenko, who began the Collective in 1997. An artist and professor of Visual Arts at the University of California at San Diego, Jeremijenko says the virtue of the hobbyist's "hands-on, DIY mentality" lies in its power to engage a wider audience in the issues surrounding biotechnology.

"Messing with the stuff of the future allows you to have an opinion and to participate in the political process that determines our technological future," she said. "It's a little theoretical; it's also fun." She conjures Benjamin Franklin as the patron saint of the hobbyist. Rather than appealing to God or to experts, Franklin appealed to the "sense-making of the everyman," she said.

With the tools of the biotech amateur now available for purchase -- used laboratory equipment has its own section on eBay -- some have asked why "garage biotech" has not spread even further. The main factor limiting an amateur biotech community is the immaturity of the technology, according to Drew Endy, a biological engineering professor at MIT. "Even though it's cheap it's extraordinarily difficult," he said. "The technology isn't reliable enough."

And there's another reason. "People are very comfortable manipulating silicon," said Endy. "A lot of people, to be blunt about it, are not comfortable with taking responsibility for the manipulation of genetics."

Kim Coghill, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, was wary of a potential Bill Gates of biotech starting out as an amateur. "I hope he's not doing (something) in his basement without the guidance of the FDA," she said. All the members of the collective are familiar with the case of Steve Kurtz, a professor and artist who has had to defend himself against accusations of "bio-terrorism" after local police happened upon his amateur home lab in May 2004. He says his case has had a moderate "chilling effect."

"Amateurs need experts," Kurtz said. "We come to them with ideas and ask them for help. Scientists are (now) a lot more hesitant to get involved."

Kurtz adds that Tepnel, the company selling a biokit used to conduct a homebrew test for genetically modified organisms designed by Critical Art Ensemble, now refuses to sell to the general public.

While inconvenient, none of these obstacles will stop amateur engagement in the long-term, says Kurtz.

"They're not doing it because it's trendy -- people like the Biotech Hobbyist Collective," he said. "They authentically believe in what they're doing."

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