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Discover Your Inner Frankenstein
May 19, 2009 12:23 AM   Subscribe

"In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage. In Seattle, a grad-school dropout wants to breed algae in a personal biology lab. These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes." They might be discovering cures for diseases or developing new biofuels, but are their experiments too risky? Via.

Additional links from the article:

"In her dining room lab, Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop a bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine."

"This home experiment for extracting DNA from strawberries [YouTube video] uses a zip-lock bag, a glass, detergent and some strawberries."

"Read more about Katherine Aull's experiment in her closet lab."

"DIYbio Group co-founder Mackenzie Cowell explains some of the initiatives [Vimeo video], and the community lab the group is setting up in Cambridge, Mass."

Related:

The Biohacking Hobbyist

Biohacking: The Open Wetware Future

The Open Biohacking Project
posted by amyms (101 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Finally, I'm going to get that neanderthal steak I've been waiting for.
posted by codswallop at 12:29 AM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


What if human/Neanderthal hybrids taste even better? Could we raise them like cattle? Would they make good servants?
posted by Tashtego at 12:35 AM on May 19, 2009


I'll be over here, reading my copy of The White Plague and shuddering.
posted by rodgerd at 12:43 AM on May 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


Cool hobby, WSJ's angle? Potential Threat to National Security!!!!1111!!11 Thanks Murdoch, you dick.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:53 AM on May 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


People doing science. Cool!
posted by honest knave at 12:55 AM on May 19, 2009


And sign me up for Meredith Patterson's yoghurt that tells you when it's bad.
posted by honest knave at 12:56 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


OK, I'll say it: "What could possibly go wrong?"
posted by The Tensor at 1:09 AM on May 19, 2009 [11 favorites]


Sure there are risks, but these people know that. I'd rather see a few pioneering independent researchers working than not allow any such thing.

This makes me think back to when I got my chemistry set for my 9th birthday and how these things are disappearing from kids' lives today in the name of safety.
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:21 AM on May 19, 2009


I was going to make some comment about wendell, but I'm too busy fighting the giant mutant roach/fungus/lizard/banana that just slithered in my window.
posted by rokusan at 1:24 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do we stop people from messing with cylinders and tubes for fear they'll build a nuclear attack sub?

Even prokaryotes make a submarine seem as complicated as a circle.

On preview - what cmgonzalez said....
posted by Samuel Farrow at 1:25 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do we stop people from messing with cylinders and tubes for fear they'll build a nuclear attack sub?

Depends if they're Iraqi.
posted by pompomtom at 1:41 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


How apropos. I was just watching an Outer Limits episode about a cult that grew a doomsday virus.

Anyhoo... I've read a bunch of pop-science books on viruses, epidemiology, and plagues. I'm still glued to the CDC/WHO coverage of Novel H1N1. And I say, let these people experiment! There's no real risk, IMHO, of them doing anything exceedingly dangerous. At least, not more dangerous than what occurs naturally.
posted by sbutler at 1:53 AM on May 19, 2009


I'd like a new virus that doesn't kill - it just makes stupid hurt. I could drum up some venture capital for that.
posted by sidereal at 2:32 AM on May 19, 2009 [16 favorites]


It seems to me that what "real" scientists do can't be much safer. I mean, E. coli is used in experiments everywhere, right? Often by intentionally modifying its genes. So if airborne insta-epidemic herpagonasyphilis gets created by accident in a lab with shiny instruments and mid-level managers we'll all be just as dead as if it gets created in someone's home.

A friend of mine worked in a pharmaceutical research lab and once I got him to explain in detail what he did to me I was surprised to find out that it boiled down to just randomly mixing shit together to see what happens. Less randomly with more educated guesses than a layman, for sure, but they weren't doing any molecular modeling or protein folding calculations or anything else sexy that shows up on the cover of Discover: their projects involved mixing sequences of tens of thousands of different substances together with something that's present in the human body and just watching with sensitive instruments for any sort of reaction.
posted by XMLicious at 2:39 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Having spent thousands of hours of my life doing phenol extractions and plasmid preps back in the day makes this rank somewhere below build-your-own-home-sewage-treatment-plant as a hobby I'd like to adopt. But I don't see the harm in others trying it.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 2:46 AM on May 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


Not as risky as giving Monsanto, Politicians, etc. sole access to the key to life.

Risks from viruses, bacteria, etc. have been greatly exaggerated. Risks from corporate & government control of information & production surround us daily, yet aren't similarly exadurated. An anti-genetically modified foods activist once said "I'm not afraid of new mistakes, I'm afraid of perfecting old ones".

You can clarify this by using a utilitarian argument. Will your life get shorter or longer, statistically speaking, if access to biological tools is restricted?

I'd say the dominant factor here is cost of new medicines, which biohackers will definitely reduce by increasing competition from small nimble startups, which adds years, and more importantly quality, to your life.

So let us consider only "harmful" biotech. Well, again the biohackers significantly lengthen & improve your life because they will cut through the lies & deception. What do you imagine are your chances of being killed by some engendered bacteria? Now what are your chances of losing 5 years to Monsanto lying about some contamination or side effects?

I've got an idea, let us give biotech massive federal funding, but restrict that funding to universities and "small" companies, where small means less than 30 employees, valuation & owners net worth less than 10 million, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:02 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Anyway, we already have all the adequate procedures for restricting access to truly dangerous viruses. You know, kids have built nuclear bombs too, but they never had the plutonium.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:05 AM on May 19, 2009


It seems to me that what "real" scientists do can't be much safer.

You are not the Radioactive Boy Scout, are you?
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:12 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


You know, this is pretty fucking cool.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:16 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


So AMPS isn't far off? Awesome.
posted by maxwelton at 4:25 AM on May 19, 2009


...are their experiments too risky?

Compared to, say, building a concentrated swine lot next to a battery chicken farm? I'm gonna say no.
posted by rusty at 4:25 AM on May 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


My local curry house has been making genetically modified e-coli in its kitchens for some years now. I think they are unaware they are, in fact, biohackers.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:49 AM on May 19, 2009 [9 favorites]


So awesome.

Also, as I've said more than once: When I'm an old man (i.e. over 60) I probably won't able to turn off the blinking 12:00 on my hamster.
posted by DU at 4:50 AM on May 19, 2009 [16 favorites]


It seems to me that what "real" scientists do can't be much safer. I mean, E. coli is used in experiments everywhere, right? Often by intentionally modifying its genes.

This question was asked a couple decades ago.

The bread and butter of "real" scientists (hey, that's me!) is a strain called K12 and it's million six derivatives. Let's say at work today, rather than run that gel i need to, I take a K12 and stick in every known antibiotic resistance plasmid plus a gene for pure death. You know what would happen? I'd have a very antibiotic resistant E. coli that would be very antibiotic resistant and make a nasty toxin but couldn't survive in the wild (your gut).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:55 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was actually someone who got arrested for doing this stuff after his wife died. The cops came in, saw all this equipment and just arrested the guy, who got charged with all kinds of bio-terrorism related charges and spent a lot of time in jail or going through the court system. Carl Zimmer wrote about it:
I was surprised, however, to discover that the reporter [of this WSJ article] does not mention the one time that somebody actually got arrested and charged with biohacking. At last year’s World Science Festival, I moderated a panel with the artist Steven Kurtz, who had just finished navigating a Kafkaesque experience with the FBI for having a PCR machine and some harmless soil bacteria in his house. While we certainly need protection against bioterrorism and risky experiments, we definitely do not need the sort of ignorance of basic biology that was on display in the Kurtz affair.
posted by delmoi at 5:05 AM on May 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


And sure, some malicious biohacker may make some kind of "bio-virus" similar to computer viruses but then services will spring up to market "anti-bio-viruses" that eradicate them.
posted by DU at 5:06 AM on May 19, 2009


Do we stop people from messing with cylinders and tubes for fear they'll build a nuclear attack sub?

OK, I'll play devil's advocate here. A couple of tubes and cylinders in a back yard machine shop won't produce a nuclear attack sub, while extracting, modifying, and breeding disease vectors that could potentially infect large swaths of the population is entirely possible with a backyard lab. Hell, it's entirely possible without a backyard lab.

Will your life get shorter or longer, statistically speaking, if access to biological tools is restricted?

Much longer if my neighbor is breeding the next generation pandemic in her basement.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:09 AM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Given some of the completely stupid stuff I have seen scientists try to do in "regulated" environments like making replication competent adenovirus with potent oncogenes made on an open bench. I shudder to think what someone competent could come up with in a backyard lab. But then, I am a paranoid bastard.
posted by Hutch at 5:21 AM on May 19, 2009


This really is not a good idea for a variety of reasons. First, while E. coli itself is relatively harmless, antibiotic resistances can be passed across different bacteria species. Second, if these 'biohackers' are going to affect human diseases (as some have suggested) they are going to have to work in organisms besides E. coli and therein lies potential for real problems. Third, doing biology requires the use of many harmful chemicals (even simple DNA purification). Labs in academia and industry are required to decontaminate and dispose of these under very strict regulations. I assume these people are just dumping them down the sink. (Not to say this does not happen in academia, but waste water from labs is monitored for the more obvious violations.)

I know that in MA, this is in violation of a large number of regulations that govern personal safety, disposal of biological waste, and disposal of chemical waste. (Heck, I could not even dump a bottle of Jack Daniel's down the sink here, because the ethanol content.) I'm shocked the woman in Cambridge is allowed to continue with this work. That city has some of the most strict regulations in the country. (Side note - when recombinant DNA work was in its infancy the city of Cambridge seriously considered banning its use. Today it is a hub of academic and industrial biological research.)
posted by batou_ at 5:35 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


That's when the phone rang. A man saying he was doing research for the U.S. government called with a few polite, pointed questions....

That guy? He was from Merck. They are VERY CONCERNED about the long-term care options of making penicillin and blood thinners in your kitchen.
posted by puckish at 5:39 AM on May 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


So my homebrew Vicodin lab is all cool then? Sweet.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 5:52 AM on May 19, 2009


I'll give you my pFluoroGreen when you pry it from my cold, dead E. coli.
posted by peeedro at 5:52 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've been doing this stuff in my fridge for years.
posted by orme at 5:56 AM on May 19, 2009


But restrict that funding to universities and "small" companies

Just out of curiosity, what are you basing this idea on (besides my darkest nightmares)?

I'm seen what small companies produce. It isn't pretty. They often don't know what they're doing in a bunch of little specialized areas, and the FDA seems to give them a lot more slack than it does the big companies. Sometimes they figure this stuff out, but as often as not they try to find a big company to pull their bacon out of the fire for them. Then my life becomes a month or three of pure hell as I hastily produce something that isn't nearly as good as if it had been done right in the first place.

Sometimes, no one else wants to get involved (for some reason) and they go it alone.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:57 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


rodgerd: "I'll be over here, reading my copy of The White Plague and shuddering."

First thing I thought of too.
posted by octothorpe at 6:08 AM on May 19, 2009


Imagine the story was that Merck, Pfizer or Glaxo were running labs they never reported to OSHA or the other regulatory agencies, and it turns out that the labs were basically run out of apartment buildings that grossly failed to comply with regulations and that other residents were not informed. Would everyone in this thread be as permissive? No, because it "corporations". But when it's hackers, hey they're cool, so they get a pass.

Private companies that operate labs have to lease space in special buildings and conform to OSHA standards regarding biohazards, safety, etc. E.g. you can't just pour stuff down the sink or toss it in a Hefty garbage bag when you're done with it. How many complaints on this site have their been about pharmaceuticals in the water supply because people pee them out, but you're going to give this a pass?

Furthermore, not all office space can become lab space. Many states zone for lab space.

If you can't run an office out of your home without having to tell the IRS and your insurance company, you'd think you wouldn't be able to run a fucking laboratory with hazardous materials without doing the same. At the very least, people who do this in their home should have to file something with their local government, and have regular OSHA inspections.

Yes, this is monumentally dangerous, not because biohackers will release some death virus that will kill everyone, but because some moron who got a B- in high school biology but wants to be cool is going to do this in their apartment, something will get into the ventilation or the plumbing, and someone else will get a tummy ache. That is a real risk. No one else should have to suffer because someone wants to irresponsibly run a lab out of a closet.

People lament that kids don't play with chemistry sets anymore. That's true. Kids also don't ride in the front seats of cars that don't have seat belts or safety glass either. Kids wear helmets when they ride bikes too.

You know why kids don't play with chemistry sets like the ones in the good ol' days? Because the good ol' sets killed people, burned down houses, and the makers got sued out of existence. But the people who were killed aren't around to tell you how dangerous it is, so all we hear are the idiotic voices "I did it and I'm okay."
posted by Pastabagel at 6:34 AM on May 19, 2009 [23 favorites]


I probably won't able to turn off the blinking 12:00 on my hamster

You won't be able to see it from underneath the splendid warmth of your spider-silk comforter, spun fresh for you every night by the 80 lb wolf spider/labrador retriever cross that crawls in bed with you every night and wraps his eight furry legs around your paralyzed thorax chest.
posted by CynicalKnight at 6:36 AM on May 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


         MEETING OF INTERNATIONAL
       CONFERENCE OF TECHNOLOGICAL
               PSYCHIATRY
An Excerpt from “Naked Lunch” By William S. Burroughs

Doctor "Fingers" Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, rises and turns on the Conferents the cold blue blast of his gaze:

"Gentlemen, the human nervous system can be reduced to a compact and abbreviated spinal column. The brain, front, middle and rear must follow the adenoid, the wisdom tooth, the appendix.... I give you my Master Work: The Complete All American Deanxietixed Man...."

Blast of trumpets: The Man is carried in naked by two Negro Bearers who drop him on the platform with bestial, sneering brutality.... The Man wriggles.... His flesh turns to viscid, transparent jelly that drifts away in green mist, unveiling a monster black centipede. Waves of unknown stench fill the room, searing the lungs, grabbing the stomach....

Schafer wrings his hands sobbing: "Clarence! How can you do this to me?? Ingrates!! Every one of them ingrates!'

The Conferents start back muttering in dismay:
"I'm afraid Schafer has gone a bit too far...."
"I sounded a word of warning...."
"Brilliant chap Schafer... but..."
"Man will do anything for publicity...."
"Gentlemen, this unspeakable and in every sense illegitimate child of Doctor Schafer's perverted brain must not see the light.... Our duty to the human race is clear...."
"Man he done seen the light," said one of the Negro Bearers.

"We must stomp out the Un-American crittah,' says a fat, frog-faced Southern doctor who has been drinking corn out of a mason jar. He advances drunkenly, then halts, appalled by the formidable size and menacing aspect of the centipede....

"Fetch gasoline!" he bellows. "We gotta burn the son of a bitch like an uppity Nigra!"
"I'm not sticking my neck out, me," says a cool hip young doctor high on LSD25.... "Why a smart D.A. could..."

Fadeout. "Order in The Court"
D.A.:"Gentlemen of the jury, these 'learned gentlemen' claim that the innocent human creature they have so wantonly slain suddenly turned himself into a huge black centipede and it was 'their duty to the human race' to destroy this monster before it could, by any means at its disposal, perpetrate its kind....

"Are we to gulp down this tissue of horse shit! Are we to take these glib lies like a greased and nameless asshole? Where is this wondrous centipede?

" 'We have destroyed it,' they say smugly.... And I would like to remind you, Gentlemen and Hermaphrodites of the Jury, that this Great Beast" -- he points to Doctor Schafer -- "has, on several previous occasions, appeared in this court charged with the unspeakable crime of brain rape.... In plain English" -- he pounds the rail of the jury box, his voice rises to a scream -- "in plain English, Gentlemen, forcible lobotomy...."

The Jury gasps..., One dies of a heart attack.... Three fall to the floor writhing in orgasms of prurience.... The D.A. points dramatically: "He it is.... He and no other who has reduced whole provinces of our fair land to a state bordering on the far side of idiocy.... He it is who has filled great warehouses with row on row, tier on tier of helpless creatures who must have their every want attended.... 'The Drones' he calls them with a cynical leer of pure educated evil....

Gentlemen, I say to you that the wanton murder of Clarence Cowie must not go unavenged: This foul crime shrieks like a wounded faggot for justice at least!"

The centipede is rushing about in agitation.
"Man, that mother fucker's hungry," screams one of the Bearers.
"I'm getting out of here, me."
A wave of electric horror sweeps through the Conferents.... They storm the exits screaming and clawing....


Sorry for the long comment, worth quoting in its entirety I think
posted by nfg at 6:43 AM on May 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


A canadian teenager won the national science fair with some bio-"engineering"... basically breeding and isolating a plastic-bag-eating-micro-organism cocktail.

If awesomeness like that is made illegal, I'll be very disappointed.
posted by anthill at 6:44 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's a good thing that the equipment to do anything particularly nasty is prohibitively expensive.
posted by electroboy at 6:44 AM on May 19, 2009


...breeding and isolating a plastic-bag-eating-micro-organism...

Hemp enthusiasts take note: Your time has come.
posted by DU at 6:53 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


You can have my home genetic experiment lab when you pry it from my cold dead second set of hands.
posted by The Whelk at 6:59 AM on May 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


I love how all their experiment equipment was purchased on Ebay.
posted by cass at 7:17 AM on May 19, 2009


Dear Askme,

Should I eat that?

I would totally eat that!!


Any recipes?
posted by pearlybob at 7:34 AM on May 19, 2009


There are certainly safety issues, but it's worth noting that most DIY bio initiatives are trying to come up with/work with non-toxic alternatives, even if they work less well or are more expensive. (Ethidium bromide and coomassie blue are easy, but not stuff you want in your home bio lab. The Boston DIY Bio folk - I know a few of them, and several have worked in labs I've worked in, though I haven't really kept track of them - were focusing on the use of stuff like SYBR Safe or Gel Red because of this.)

I do wish there were a easy and safe way one could be a bio or chem hobbyist (even the latter's almost impossible these days due to stupid Drug War regulations.) One of my various pursuits - when I have access to the equipment - is foundry. That's something that is generally considered too expensive and dangerous for backyard work (even though one can make smallish backyard furnaces.) Thus, most artists share foundry space, through a school or through an artists' collective. These places have to be up to code, but they're relatively accessible. Generally you pay for the amount of time you spend on equipment and the amount of material you use, and in return you get a much fancier setup than you could on your own, one that you know is as safe as foundries get.

I think one might be able to do something similar with bio and chem: have a community lab. Relatively primitive, to make it affordable, but with a working hood and autoclave, a bunch of basic used equipment, and a contract for the various kinds of toxic waste disposal. Emphasize working with cheap and hopefully non-toxic reagants, whenever possible. Require the lab to be able to live up to all safety standards that labs in industry, government, and academia must follow. Have people pay per amount of reagant used, or time using the shared PCR machine, or whatever. It seems that something like this would make the field more accessible to hobbyists while addressing safety concerns.

Ultimately, I do think that bio hobbyists have something valuable to contribute - they certainly have for chemistry! And there are precedents for people doing hazardous hobbies at home - photography labs, for example, can involve some unpleasant chemicals, but it's still possible to do non-digital photography as a hobby. As long as hobbyists are willing to cooperate with chemical and biological safety regulations, they should go for it.

Of course, like Turtles All The Way Down, I've gotta say that when labwork is your day job, having a home lab seems much, much less enticing.
posted by ubersturm at 7:40 AM on May 19, 2009 [10 favorites]


It's really disorienting when the background material I wrote for an aborted 1997 cyberpunk game project turns up in the WSJ. Again. It's like deja vu in reverse.
posted by verb at 7:43 AM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I could not even dump a bottle of Jack Daniel's down the sink here

What the fu--why would you do this?!
posted by adamdschneider at 7:45 AM on May 19, 2009


I'm a neurobiology undergraduate student .

I think this is great, but is a symptom of the fact that we don't get enough funding. We could funnel more of this into institutions if there was more money to support this.

DIY technologies also have the added benefit of driving the cost of research down.

I am concerned about bacterial and viral safety and about experiments that include animals - are they agreeing with ethical and antimicrobial standards? - but think, perhaps, some of these biohackers, if they've got the requisite undergraduate degrees, ought to be shown how they can funnel that into graduate research and helped to pursue graduate studies in that area. We ought to encourage biohacking as long as it is done safely and perhaps under the umbrella of accredited research universities. I do all my work in a university - and I would be pleased if they made some kind of outreach effort to biohackers.
posted by kldickson at 7:48 AM on May 19, 2009


Obligatory Fringe Mention.

In the age of MAKE magazine, this is totally unsuprising. I mean, how long has that home DNA sequencer been out?

Just keep up on your shots and read more science fiction, so you can see it coming better.
(waves uranium sample from old chemistry set at you)
posted by djrock3k at 7:59 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know, kids have built nuclear bombs too, but they never had the plutonium.

Brings to mind John Aristotle Phillips who, as a junior at Princeton, designed a nuclear weapon using publicly-available books and papers. "...the Federal Bureau of Investigation confiscated Phillips's term paper and a mock-up he had constructed in his dormitory room."

His book: Mushroom: The True Story of the A-Bomb Kid.
posted by ericb at 8:02 AM on May 19, 2009


kldickson: I suspect that - at least in some cases - biohackers aren't working with universities is that no one nearby is doing the particular project that biohackers want to do. A lot of research is sorta... abstract when compared to "making this strain of bacteria glow in the presence of melamine." I know that what I'm working on is ultimately important, but it's part of a larger and more complicated effort to understand how a certain system works. There's no real end to it, and no obvious product. Working with or in a research lab as a volunteer (or undergrad, or research tech, or even grad student), you are not apt to have the freedom to randomly start a project like the melamine-detection one.

That's the big difference between doing something as a hobby and as a job, I guess; as an artist, I'm free to do whatever when I'm only painting for myself. I may take commissions but I'm then constrained by what the buyer wants. As a biochemist, I get to work in a lab, and by choosing my lab, I get to choose what sort of projects I work on. However, working as a member of a research team, my focus (and funding) go towards a certain project, and so without discussing things with my PI (basically renegotiating my position in the lab), I can't suddenly start using my lab time and space to work on, say, the chemistry of ribozymes instead of my current project. A hobbyist does have that freedom, but they'd be unlikely to be granted such freedom when working with a lab.
posted by ubersturm at 8:26 AM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is truly a national security threat. Obviously, the time has come to outlaw sewage, algae, ziplock bags, detergent, and strawberries.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:28 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


If I can just get this gene for aerosol infection from this flue virus into this HIV virus I think I can get pretty much the whole planet infected in a few years. Once man is out of the way nature can reclaim its former glory.

-Theodore Kazinski

Oh wait, he wasn't really as smart as he thought he was. He just mailed a few packages. That led to dramatic changes now didn't it.
posted by caddis at 8:29 AM on May 19, 2009


Tip of the iceberg. If it can be done in a garage in Cambridge, it can be done in a cave in Pakistan.

This is not going to be a pleasant century.
posted by Wufpak at 8:32 AM on May 19, 2009


Pastabagel: Imagine the story was that Merck, Pfizer or Glaxo were running labs they never reported to OSHA or the other regulatory agencies, and it turns out that the labs were basically run out of apartment buildings that grossly failed to comply with regulations and that other residents were not informed. Would everyone in this thread be as permissive? No, because it "corporations". But when it's hackers, hey they're cool, so they get a pass.

I think you're proposing a false equivalence here. People get upset when corporations do this sort of thing (or would, if they did, as in your example) because we already know that the nature of the corporation is to make the largest profit at the least cost. That is, we can, and should, assume that Pfizer's apartment-house lab is run out of an apartment building so that it can avoid regulations and costs.

In the case of individual hobbyists, I'm a lot more likely to assume that they're more careful than they would have been required to be, because basically most people don't shit where they eat. I'm a hobbyist gardener, for example, and go to considerably greater lengths than even rganic certification would require to avoid even the most moderate "conventional" agricultural techniques, because I'm not that interested in poisoning my own backyard or my neighbors water supply.

As ubersturm says above, "it's worth noting that most DIY bio initiatives are trying to come up with/work with non-toxic alternatives, even if they work less well or are more expensive." This is exactly what I'd expect, as it's the sort of thing hobbyist gardeners, backyard chicken-keepers, and so forth tend to do. The small scale of the amateur permits a much more relaxed attitude toward process costs, and the personal involvement and lack of a profit motive encourages much greater safety-consciousness.

Does this mean there aren't any hobbyist "bio-hackers" who show no regard for basic safety? Of course not. I'm sure there are. But the presumption of guilt falls a lot more heavily on the corporation than on the hobbyist, I think.
posted by rusty at 8:40 AM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


I do wish there were a easy and safe way one could be a bio or chem hobbyist (even the latter's almost impossible these days due to stupid Drug War regulations.)

Ok, look, I realize that people on metafilter are by and large very liberal, but do you really think it's "stupid Drug War" regulations or "national security" that are at issue here? You can't burn leaves on your lawn because it pollutes the air and is a fire hazard. I can't imagine local ordinances will let you run an autoclave or an incinerator for bacterial cultures.

I wonder how many of these hobbyists have ever poured chemicals down their drains, you know, just a few times when it was late and they were tired. Whose gonna know, right?

And yes, I do want a government that investigates everyone who has home bacteria labs. An investigation is not an indictment. Or should they only investigate hobbyists whose politics are more right wing than yours?
posted by Pastabagel at 8:45 AM on May 19, 2009


Does this mean there aren't any hobbyist "bio-hackers" who show no regard for basic safety? Of course not. I'm sure there are. But the presumption of guilt falls a lot more heavily on the corporation than on the hobbyist, I think.
posted by rusty at 11:40 AM on May 19


Corporations are presumed innocent, actually. And hobbyists are just as eager to minimize costs that corporations, if not moreso. If they weren't, they simply rent out real lab space. They run the lab out of their house because they don't have the money to do it properly. Furthermore, the statement "it's worth noting that most DIY bio initiatives are trying to come up with/work with non-toxic alternatives" implies that they haven't come up with them yet, or that not all hobbyists are in agreement about using them.

Believe me, I appreciate the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and I love the entrepreneurial sentiment. But biohacking raises externalities, costs and risks, that are radically different than those presented by mechanical or electrical tinkering in garages or basements.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:51 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Personally, I'm amazed and terrified by the naiveté of the what-harm-could-it-do-ers.

To be even tangentially aware of the emerging mathematics of complex systems -- one of the great leaps forward of the twentieth century -- is to grasp that interfering in those systems will have results that cannot be predicted or controlled.

Not 'can' have -- will have. The linear, simple-cause-maps-to-simple-effect thinking that makes poking at things (or "mixing shit together") to see what happens seem sane or ultimately effective died roughly the year I was born, with Edward Lorenz's paper "Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow." (Popularly: the butterfly effect.)

Scientific inquiry becomes a death wish at the point that we start messing with the structure of life. In the words of the eminent philosopher of science Terry Pratchett:

"Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying "End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH," the paint wouldn't even have time to dry." (From "Thief of Time")
posted by namasaya at 8:53 AM on May 19, 2009


hmmm, my flu has flown up the flue
posted by caddis at 8:59 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm less worried that we'll create some "it'll kill us all" virus as much as we'll either make something permanently annoying and slightly deadly like HPV or something that, I don't know, continues to shred our plankton population.

Our doomsday science is not the stuff that happens in a second, its the way we change our ecosystem for generations to come, and each bit adds up to making the place less and less habitable for ourselves.

If someone with an exotic fish aquarium can devastate our coastal reefs, I don't want to see what some kid with big ideas, a little knowledge, and lazy lab practice can do.
posted by yeloson at 9:01 AM on May 19, 2009


"In the case of individual hobbyists, I'm a lot more likely to assume that they're more careful than they would have been required to be, because basically most people don't shit where they eat."

You're a lot more generous in your analysis of human nature than I am.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 9:06 AM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is not all of life one huge DIY biochemistry experiment?
posted by Liver at 9:36 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Chalk up another unforeseen consequence of easy access to specialized information and communication between interested parties, i.e., the internet.

I'm with pastabagel, in that I really don't want a lot of secret science labs growing possibly dangerous stuff (or creating noxious chemicals) in my neighborhood. I like the idea of hobbyist scientists, but yes, make them use regularly inspected spaces to do lab work.

And I'm kind of surprised no one's mentioned the most popular type of home labs in the US, meth labs. Just living in a house that once housed a meth lab can sicken you. There are laws to cover that; I don't want to have to worry about some science hacker dude who spilled long-acting chemicals in the basement that my realtor didn't know about.
posted by emjaybee at 10:07 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


"this rank somewhere below build-your-own-home-sewage-treatment-plant as a hobby I'd like to adopt."

Ya, digging a septic field is essentially no fun at all.

"Ok, look, I realize that people on metafilter are by and large very liberal, but do you really think it's 'stupid Drug War' regulations or 'national security' that are at issue here?"

They were talking about the regulations and just plain can't buy it that applies to lots of mundane chemicals that just happen to be precursors (or precursors of precursors of precursors). You know the same thing that prevents Americans from buying more than 30 ephedrine tablets a month. One of the reasons Meth labs are so dangerous is the easy to cook, safe methods depend on chemicals that you can't buy without a visit from the local police.
posted by Mitheral at 10:12 AM on May 19, 2009


Who is going to pay for the inspections of these hobbyist labs, and should we really expect someone trying to clone orchids under lights in their closet to adhere to the same standards as a lab genetically engineering soy beans to be resistant to Fusarium wilt?
posted by crataegus at 10:13 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Paul Ewald advanced a solid argument why bioterror is an overblown threat that will never have the potential to kill that other methods do in Plague Time.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:28 AM on May 19, 2009


Pastabagel:

Actually, the decline of hobbyist chemistry is partly - but very clearly - due to Drug War regulations. It's become very hard to buy glassware (and some basic chemicals like iodine - even for labs!) due to meth scares, etc. An Erlenmeyer flask isn't a dangerous thing to own, and there are countless completely safe experiments you can run that require one, but in some states (like Texas) you can't buy one if you're not a lab due to regulations prompted by meth scares.

In any case: 1) The hobbyists I am aware of (I said "most DIY bio people" because I don't know them all!) care a great deal about safety. There are safe home ways to sterilize things: at least some pressure cookers can reach 121C at 15psi (which is what our lab autoclave runs at), and in all labs (including top academic ones), EtOH and bleach are used to sterilize equipment and to kill anything in liquid waste. Things like SYBR Safe can replace toxic reagents like ethidium bromide. To do the relatively basic experiments they're running, it's certainly possible to do things safely with a low-tech setup. Plus, like other people with somewhat dangerous hobbies (artists who work with metal, for example, or photographers), they have two great motives to keep things safe: if things go wrong, they'll probably be the first to get injured, and if they don't keep things safe, their hobby will probably end up becoming illegal.

Beyond that, 2) I was suggesting the formation of community labs, run by science collectives in the same way that artist groups run foundries or photo labs (which are also hazardous). With something like this, even people who want to try complete DIY bio (running gels through straws, etc.) would have a safe space to experiment, discard waste, etc. Honestly, I suspect that hobbyist groups will move in this direction anyway, given the fact that it would be easier to maintain a safe environment, buy supplies in bulk, and access some of the machines there really are no home replacements for. Labs like that would perforce follow all regulations regarding lab safety, and members of the science collective would have to pay for inspections. This is quite different from "burning leaves on your lawn" or "pouring chemicals down [a drain]."

To some extent, we can't stop the kind of very basic bio most biohackers are pursuing: after all, if you know what you're doing, you can do it in a closet, like Katherine Aull. Encouraging the formation of community labs (with appropriate safety regulations) and amateur biologist groups sounds like a better way to disseminate important information and to encourage hobbyists to work safely - and to foster interesting research! - than banning everything and hoping we catch offenders. We've found ways to make other hobbies with hazardous components do-able; I think we can do the same for bio.
posted by ubersturm at 10:30 AM on May 19, 2009 [7 favorites]


Are you guys crazy? Those of you who think this is fine, I mean. You do realize that technology doesn't stand still, and pretty soon these biohackers are going to be able to brew bubonic plague in their basements? Please, tell me how I'm wrong. You ever consider that some people may get into this hobby for all the wrong reasons? I'm not talking about what they are doing now, but about what you can expect in the future.
posted by Edgewise at 10:51 AM on May 19, 2009


It occurs to me that there are some pretty seriously hazardous chemicals that people can just walk in and buy right off the shelf every day that are probably poured down the drain or thrown in the trash every night. Mercury and other heavy metals, carcinogenic organics, etc.

Pool supply shops, automotive supply shops, Home Depot and even your local Wal-Mart sell cleaners, solvents, construction materials and other things that probably are as bad as what most of these biohobbyists would be using.
posted by darkstar at 11:07 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


When science experiments in the garage/basement/spare bedroom go bad. [I used to live a block away from here. Even though the house was long off the Superfund list, it still gave me slight heebie jeebies when I'd occasionally walk by.]
posted by medeine at 11:18 AM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well I'm convinced. This stuff is too dangerous for anyone but major, trustworthy, and highly regulated corporations such as Dow Corning, Ciba Geigy, and Monsanto to be allowed to meddle with. Sufficient regulation should be able to shut down hobby bioengineering, just like Prohibition successfully did in the 1920s with alcohol distillation, and the successful War on Drugs more recently has, with the closure of the last known meth lab.
posted by rusty at 11:24 AM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


(Sorry, I guess Ciba is Novartis now.)
posted by rusty at 11:30 AM on May 19, 2009


In the case of individual hobbyists, I'm a lot more likely to assume that they're more careful than they would have been required to be

Even if people have their heart in the right place, I question their competence and intelligence, not to mention their rigor. It's really really easy to get lax about safety and procedures, which is why labs are so heavily regulated and things have to be checked so often. Some people (with lab experience and the right education) will know all the proper safety and disposal techniques, others won't. Even those who do will get lax over time, or just plain take stupid risks (humans do this).

I'm sure you know some people who are doing all the right things. I'm not saying they're all bad. But going off what all my fellow scientists were doing at Caltech while we were in school, we did some dangerous fucked-up shit (outside of labs). I don't think they all stopped just because they left college. They were educated, they just took risks that most people wouldn't want their next-door neighbor to take (for good reason).
posted by wildcrdj at 11:39 AM on May 19, 2009


People who see this as either/or are missing the point tho --- I don't think all of us are saying only big companies can do it, thats a strawman. I'm saying that anyone who works with certain chemicals or technologies should be regulated and inspected, whether they do it in their kitchen or their 3 billion dollar lab. Given that the former may be prohibitively expensive, maybe some sort of public lab space is called for.
posted by wildcrdj at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2009


Brings to mind Boston University's new Biosafety Level-4 (BSL4) laboratory (with reserach focused on "diseases such as Ebola, Marburg, and plague") located in the densely-populated Roxbury/South End areas of Boston and set to open next year.

Area residents have been protesting the lab for years. It's "the only United States BSL4 located in a densely populated urban neighborhood."
posted by ericb at 12:21 PM on May 19, 2009


I hear a lot of doomsaying in this thread but very little evidence that anything these people are doing in their home labs comes close to being cataclysmic or even harmful, compared to lots of other more conventional hobbies.

Everyone seems to be getting all "OMG GERMS!!!11!" in a way that's totally unjustified.

You can make a pretty nasty batch of Clostridium botulinum without even trying, using nothing but home canning/preservation equipment and not following the instructions.* Does that mean we should ban home canning? Restrict home canning to commercially-inspected facilities? I sure hope not, but it seems like it's only a short hop from the restrictions people are saying should be placed on home biology.

* And home canning, I might point out, actually produces as an end-product something that people are intended to eat. And that practitioners of home canning -- pardon me, preservohackers -- frequently give away these potentially-lethal bioweapons to unsuspecting friends and relatives, sometimes cleverly concealed as holiday gifts.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:50 PM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


...pretty soon these biohackers are going to be able to brew bubonic plague in their basements

Couldn't someone do that now without any real background in science at all? I believe Bubonic plague still infects rodents in the Southwest. If a person isolated a few infected rodents he or she could grow in a medium in a mason jar. Or failing that, some pet store hamsters. I don't see why you would need a DNA sequencer unless you wanted to make some improvements. As others have pointed out, we are surrounded by dangerous chemicals. All it really takes for an atrocity is evil intent.
posted by Tashtego at 1:20 PM on May 19, 2009


To be even tangentially aware of the emerging mathematics of complex systems -- one of the great leaps forward of the twentieth century -- is to grasp that interfering in those systems will have results that cannot be predicted or controlled.

Not 'can' have -- will have.


I'd be more worried about damaging the space time continuum with super-dense hyperbole.

I mean I'd call human biology a complex system and yet, despite the mixing and matching of genes people tend to do, often while drunk, children tend to resemble their parents and but not have comic book superpowers.

I mean, the Krebs cycle is certainly complex, right. So why is it that, no matter how many times I eat something I never have eaten before, I almost never respond in a way that cannot be predicted or controlled?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:30 PM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I hear a lot of doomsaying in this thread but very little evidence that anything these people are doing in their home labs comes close to being cataclysmic or even harmful, compared to lots of other more conventional hobbies.

It's not about what they are doing now, but what can be done. Imagine a day when pathogenic DNA codes can be downloaded from the internet and uploaded into a DNA sequencer within an hour.

Couldn't someone do that now without any real background in science at all? I believe Bubonic plague still infects rodents in the Southwest.

OK, I didn't know that, but that's just one example. What I'm really worried about is people making new and nasty designer virii that the world has never seen.

For all you guys playing the anti-corporate card, I'm sorry, that's just silly. A few large corporations have a lot more at stake and are a lot easier to monitor than home hobbyists. A corporation's agenda is to make money. This might offend some of the more liberal types out there as per knee-jerk, but I find that goal infinitely more reassuring in this context as compared to tomorrow's McVeighs and Attas.

Yes, large faceless corporations can trample the environment and safety standards, even when they are monitored. But this is not their goal. Contrast that with a basement bioengineer who wants to, oh, let's say, cleanse planet Earth of human life. Cry all you want about Monsanto, but they need living customers to buy their shit. With tomorrow's technology, it will eventually be as trivial to make an organic virus as it currently is to make a computer virus. Please put this in perspective.
posted by Edgewise at 1:47 PM on May 19, 2009


it will eventually be as trivial to make an organic virus as it currently is to make a computer virus

Assuming that this is correct, then you cannot stop the extermination of all human life, because all you need is a pissed-off grad student at any university on the planet (to say nothing of pissed-off lab techs at the Behemo-corp who found out they're going to be laid off in a week) and *poof* MEGADEATH escapes to devour us all.

Or, perhaps more likely, you're being needlessly histrionic.
posted by aramaic at 2:21 PM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not particularly concerned that biohackers will produce the next plague, simply because biology is hard. Much like how the average home chemists chances of making Sarin are relatively small: the chemistry is hard.

The other big factor, for me, is how popular of a hobby this is going to be. Society already has to suffer through the ills of people pouring crap down storm drains and over-applying fertilizer and herbicide to lawns, are the residues from biohacking really going to be that significant of an addition?

Furthermore, arguing that this technology could be used for nefarious purposes strikes me as something of a straw-man: That terrorists could make the plague is, to me, analogous to how Aum Shinrikyo managed to produce Sarin. That is: they weren't using a home chemistry set, and home chemistry sets didn't make it any easier.
posted by selenized at 2:37 PM on May 19, 2009


Didn't they do this on an episode of Eli Stone?
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:42 PM on May 19, 2009


It's not about what they are doing now, but what can be done. Imagine a day when pathogenic DNA codes can be downloaded from the internet and uploaded into a DNA sequencer within an hour.

So? You can get plans for all sorts of bombs and chemical agents off the Internet right now, most of which don't involve anything you can't find in a grocery store. That doesn't mean we should ban the Internet, or Drano.

And as long as we're playing with imaginary scenarios, I can imagine a future where I download plans for some sort of self-replicating machine, feed it into the nanobots that I use to clean my toilet, and wipe out the East Coast under a tide of grey goo. But just because I can imagine that doesn't mean we should be afraid of researching nanotechnology or projects like RepRap; that would be ridiculous and stupid. I could make up doomsday scenarios involving just about any potentially disruptive technology.

The stuff you're imagining isn't reality, it's science fiction. It doesn't make sense to regulate otherwise-harmless activities based on hypothetical scenarios that may or may not be possible in the foreseeable future. If they become possible, then we'll regulate them. I certainly don't want Congress passing laws for things that they think might be possible, maybe, at some unspecified point in the future, especially if those laws curtail research or even just hobbies today.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:02 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like to make beer in my closet. I have 30 gallons going right now, and jars of various strains of liquid yeast in a fridge. I am prepared to be the brewer to sustain the Glowing Yogurt Brigade when the black helicopters come for our pet biota.
posted by oneironaut at 3:17 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


OK, so there are two strains of argument here: 1) DIY bio labs will be a minor, local health hazard and 2) DIY bio labs will create the evil death virus that will extinguish all life on earth.

To those saying "oh no! the biohackers will bring us the plague! this would put technology in the hands of bad people!" - there are a great many trained biologists right now, some of whom have access to some nasty pathogens and who are all capable of doing much more complicated (and much more potentially dangerous) things than the DIY folk. Can we be sure that every one of them is a good person? (And can we be sure that every person who comes into contact with nasty bacteria outside of the lab - and there are a lot of nasties floating around - won't culture it and kill us all?) Take a look at the history of science during the cold war: the big difference between scientists and hobbyists is experience and access to funding, supplies, and equipment. They're both human, and both can have evil motives. The anthrax letters were sent by a man working in a government lab. And as for the amateurs:

Imagine a day when pathogenic DNA codes can be downloaded from the internet and uploaded into a DNA sequencer within an hour.

And then you do.... what exactly? Stare at the DNA in horror? If you're making a virus, what about the capsid - are you synthesizing those proteins in vitro too? Do they self-assemble? How are you planning on getting the DNA (or RNA!) into the capsid? What about the other proteins involved? Do you have a relatively stable cell line that you can use to grow a lot of them? Any kind of organisms that you can test the virus's effects on? If you're talking about bacteria, what are you planning to do - modify E. coli with lots of lethal toxins? Well, will your cell have enough energy (cellular resources) to produce all of those toxins and still grow and divide? If you have the DNA for Yersinia pestis but not the bacterium itself, what are you going to do - insert the DNA into a more common cell (how?) and hope for the best, despite the fact that the cellular machinery necessary to make Y. pestis run is probably pretty different from that of the host cell?

Etc. Point is, this stuff is very complicated. Currently, real labs are no closer to being able to create a truly designer baby (or bacterium!) than lone nuts are. For the forseeable future, due to cost, complexity, and limitations of our current knowledge, labs will have the avantage, making it vastly more likely that a nut who's employed at a real lab might manage to make something deadly. Meanwhile, most of the DIY Bio initiatives that I've heard of are very simple: "make this cell light up with GFP if it comes into contact with compound X." There are a lot of small problems that they might be able to help out with, and no more chance that they'll breed the world-ending virus than a government scientist. I'm not sure anyone has a great answer for that, beyond "control really dangerous stuff" "make those controls multiply redundant" and so on, but no one is ready to stop science to avoid that risk.

That leaves us the health hazard question. And yes, DIY labs have the potential to be local health hazards, which is why safety regulations are great and community labs might be a great idea. But this is something that's amenable to regulation. People partake in a great many activities that may be dangerous to themselves or others. We can take a look at how bio research works today and figure out how to regulate it. For example: Safety course. Nothing above BL2. Only E. coli and S. cerevisiae in home labs. Limited antibiotic access. Inspections of lab spaces if you're not using an accredited (and fully regulated) community lab. Requirement to use non-toxic alternatives where available. Waste saved for hazmat garbagemen. Large fines (& no more license) for dangerous setups. Etc.

Or, hey, something like that. Point is, the practical day-to-day hazards can be addressed with some thought and regulation, and bio hobbyists are probably less likely to create WORLD-ENDING HAZARDS than someone with access to a real lab is.
posted by ubersturm at 3:48 PM on May 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oneironaut: there is precisely one thing that has tempted me to employ my bio skills out of the lab. Glowing beer. Preferably weißbier, but anything bottle-conditioned would do. GFP, is there anything you can't do?!
posted by ubersturm at 3:52 PM on May 19, 2009


We had better outlaw aromatherapy candles or mandate yearly inspections of any facility that uses them, since if carelessly used they could burn down an entire city block. Much less can we permit the home manufacture of aromatherapy candles! Aromatherapists are perhaps the greatest threat this nation faces today.

And home experimentation with financial investing, that needs to be outlawed too. We don't want the next financial crisis to start on someone's laptop in their breakfast nook on a Sunday afternoon: this sort of thing needs to be done on a large mahogany desk in front of a leather chair, with lawyers and lobbyists on speed dial to handle any problems that may occur. Obviously only the professionals can be trusted to take the proper safety precautions.
posted by XMLicious at 4:09 PM on May 19, 2009


Ubersturm, I'm down. One question...would you be able to see it glowing in amber glass? Yes, in the drinking glass, but you wouldn't want it to get light-struck and skunked.

Weissbier, Saison...anything with active yeast. I can imagine all sorts of uses for yeasts that change color to indicate where they are in the life cycle too.
posted by oneironaut at 5:16 PM on May 19, 2009


Amber glass could cause problems (GFP and its cousins require light at certain frequencies to activate them.) You'd have to wait for the beer to be poured to see it, unless you wanted to spend the time figuring out how well specific frequencies of blue light travel through amber beer bottle glass. I'm not sure how well you'd see it glowing through the bottle, though, so I'm not sure it's worth the effort. I was worried that there wouldn't be enough yeast for the glow to be noticeable, but upon reflection, unfiltered beers with active yeast get pretty cloudy. A dark room, something emitting the right excitation frequency, and you'd have creepy, awesome glowing beer.

Of course, there's a lot that remains to be thought out about this plan - which gene would you want the fluorescent protein expressed with, which GFP-relative would be best for the task, etc. Too bad I probably can't convince the NIH to fund glowing beer research.
posted by ubersturm at 6:38 PM on May 19, 2009


I'd call human biology a complex system and yet, despite the mixing and matching of genes people tend to do, often while drunk, children tend to resemble their parents and but not have comic book superpowers.

You know, the odd thing is that that experiment involves an unmodified, pre-existing species, and reproductive methods that evolved with it. (Here's a manual if you want to check.)

Even so -- and the alcohol is a good example -- messing with that process in seemingly small ways can have large unpredicted results. I know two adults disabled for life by fetal alcohol syndrome, another damaged prenatally by Agent Orange (an extra thumb, among other things), another (a close relative) who may have died of cancer at 36 because of a medication her mother took in pregnancy.

That's the tiniest possible kind of unintended result -- a purely individual effect.

When you mess with a system -- not even biologically, just geographically -- the wildness really begins. Check out the story of cane toads in Australia, zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, the Emerald ash borer, currently affecting a huge swath of North American forests, or any of countless other invasive species.

We're not even in a lab yet, we just moved a tiny number of naturally evolved creatures around -- and we're into the mathematics of chaos theory. Certain species' population takes off on exponential growth [PDF] curves, while other species precipitously crash, and even become extinct. Landscapes change, human industries are wiped out, local climate may be affected. Not all the changes, of course, are "bad," from a human point of view -- but the perturbed system restabilizes into new patterns noone could have predicted.

Okay: now you want to mess with DNA itself? And you think you have a fucking clue what's going to happen, even to the individual organism involved and its immediate offspring, let alone how that will ripple out into its wider environment (including us)?

And you think random people should be free to do it in their basements?

Two dozen ordinary rabbits, in Australia, released for hunting in 1859, changed the face of the continent within a single generation. Tell me again that you know what your genetically modified organisms are going to do...?
posted by namasaya at 7:16 PM on May 19, 2009


And then you do.... what exactly? Stare at the DNA in horror?

OK, I confess that I am not a genetic engineer, but isn't there a simple solution here? If you want to reproduce a virus and you have it's DNA/RNA, can't you just implant it into the nucleus of the kind of organism it is supposed to infect? As I understand it, that's the whole point of a virus, to inject its code into the nucleus. Then, it hijacks the cell into making tons of copies until lysis.

Again, I don't know the particulars, but even if this is complex and painstaking with current technology, I have great faith that more efficient methods will be found.

this would put technology in the hands of bad people!" - there are a great many trained biologists right now, some of whom have access to some nasty pathogens and who are all capable of doing much more complicated (and much more potentially dangerous) things than the DIY folk. Can we be sure that every one of them is a good person?

Absolutely not. I believe that there are risks of members of the scientific community going rogue with their lab samples -- remember the anthrax mailer shortly after 9/11? But this in no way reassures me that making these tools available to an increasingly wider audience is a good idea. What is the logic here? Because it hasn't happened yet among a small community, we should broaden access to what we can all acknowledge to be dangerous tools?

In the long term, bioweapons may end up having the greatest destructive potential. Is it hard to conceive of someone designing a highly infectious pathogen that is 90% lethal within a week? It's hard to get your hands on smallpox, but what about when it's possible to make it from scratch? Bioweapons are a lot easier to transport than nukes, and eventually they will be far easier to manufacture.

Point is, the practical day-to-day hazards can be addressed with some thought and regulation, and bio hobbyists are probably less likely to create WORLD-ENDING HAZARDS than someone with access to a real lab is.

I certainly agree with this when you're talking about right now. But for how long will this remain true? I'm not saying that this requires immediate action, with CDC stormtroopers kicking down doors. But I think we might want to get ahead of this one, because I think there is some potential for household WMD's in the not-too-distant future. Obviously, I lack the knowledge to say exactly how long that will be, so I err on the safe side.
posted by Edgewise at 8:32 PM on May 19, 2009


It's not about what they are doing now, but what can be done. Imagine a day when pathogenic DNA codes can be downloaded from the internet and uploaded into a DNA sequencer within an hour.

I'm picturing such a day in my mind, only it didn't take an hour. I believe Clinton had just gotten impeached over the whole Lewinsky thing. Truly a mad, nightmarish future.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:39 PM on May 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is a tough issue.

On the one hand, it's impossible to regulate stuff like this, at least at the lower levels. No one's going on a watch list for strawberries.

On the other hand, I have full faith that some crazy stoner could fill my apartment with his attempt to get in on the latest "vaporization" craze, and then I'll wake up wondering why everything is so funny. People do stupid stuff (heck, once I made myself sick mixing melted clay and wax to make the COOLEST diorama ever), and other people can get hurt by it. I think I would prefer more "neighbor is doing dangerous stuff, but please get all the proper warrants" rules rather than "ban glass beakers."
posted by ®@ at 8:44 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Namasaya, you keep citing ecological trainwrecks that are results of introducing a species into an environment where it has no natural predators (which is really very predictable when you get down to it) and then extrapolating in directions that don't exactly line up.

Why is it all of the people you cite who have taken a hypothetical hit to their DNA have defects or are dead. Why are none of them part utahraptor that have evolved beyond the rest of the human race and devoured us all? Why is it when we knocked some problematic proteins out of an E. coli at work the result was an E. coli that didn't express those proteins? I mean if this chaos theory thing is so damn hot, why can I predict the behavior of ≈4000 proteins and God knows how many species of polyclonal antibodies in the assay I do using nothing but Microsoft Excel and algebra? When you've got 10^16th moving parts of 20-odd thousand flavors, well, when does it cease being defined by the equation KD=[A][B]/[AB] and get unpredictable and uncontrollable?

For that matter, why do people keep bringing up the horror of someone culturing something that can grow a horrible toxin when little old ladies doing a half-assed job of putting soup in canning jars have been growing the stuff for years? Why hasn't a computer hacker started one nuclear war like they told us back in the 80's? You kids today and your rock and roll.

Er, anyhow, I put together a post on this same subject a few years ago
. Watch the video - particularly the part where he talks about disentangling the genes of a virus, how much work that was and what effect that had on the virus' performance relative to the native strain.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:11 PM on May 19, 2009


Assuming that this is correct, then you cannot stop the extermination of all human life, because all you need is a pissed-off grad student at any university on the planet (to say nothing of pissed-off lab techs at the Behemo-corp who found out they're going to be laid off in a week) and *poof* MEGADEATH escapes to devour us all.

You know, some of the arguments being made in this thread are pretty thin. There are three themes that have recurred in a few posts: "this is so bad that it is ridiculous to imagine that it could happen" (as in the above), "it hasn't happened yet, so it will never happen," or "if big evil companies can be trusted with biotech, then so can anyone." If your reasoning is some variation on these themes, then it could use some fleshing out.

Some of you may know better reasons than what you're stating as to why basement biotech is nothing to be worried about. If anyone wants to argue why it seems so unlikely that bioengineering technology (and hence, bioweapons) will not become simpler, cheaper and more widely available, I would honestly like to hear it. I'm not saying this as a challenge; I'm saying that I'd truly like to hear an intelligent argument as to why this is something that we should not be concerned about. I'm a little tired of all the empty dismissals.

Others are stressing the positives brought on by these hobbyists, and I respect what they are doing. My concern is that, in the long term, this could be worse than letting people play with plutonium in their garages. It doesn't take many bad apples to cause more harm than good.

Of course, we could always wait until something really bad happens, and overreact. But what am I saying, that doesn't seem likely... Oh wait, I think that's exactly what will happen one day. No, I don't think that a disgruntled laid-off Nabisco "Flavor Tech" is going to exterminate all life on Earth. Rather, said erstwhile engineer will kill a few thousand, or a few million, and then we'll all go berserk and clamp down on every test tube we lay eyes on for the next twenty years.
posted by Edgewise at 9:28 PM on May 19, 2009


I'm picturing such a day in my mind, only it didn't take an hour. I believe Clinton had just gotten impeached over the whole Lewinsky thing. Truly a mad, nightmarish future.

You are totally missing the point. I'm talking about the wide dissemination (no pun intended) of technology capable of making new microorganisms from scratch.

Also, this is another case where the implied argument is "is hasn't happened yet, so it won't happen no matter how many people have access to the technology."

For that matter, why do people keep bringing up the horror of someone culturing something that can grow a horrible toxin when little old ladies doing a half-assed job of putting soup in canning jars have been growing the stuff for years?

There's a huge difference between a toxin and a contagious pathogen.

Why hasn't a computer hacker started one nuclear war like they told us back in the 80's?

Maybe they are not the same things. What makes them the same, that they are both scenarios where technology can be destructive? I guess I see the parallels. By the same logic, I should not be worried about global warming. After all, computer hackers never started a nuclear war.
posted by Edgewise at 9:41 PM on May 19, 2009


If you want to reproduce a virus and you have it's DNA/RNA, can't you just implant it into the nucleus of the kind of organism it is supposed to infect? As I understand it, that's the whole point of a virus, to inject its code into the nucleus. Then, it hijacks the cell into making tons of copies until lysis.

If it were that simple, certain parts of my job would be much, much easier. Thing is, organisms have evolved along with viruses. How do you get the full viral genome into the cell (and what kind of cell?) intact? (I had a hard enough time last week getting a 1kb gene into some stubborn yeast!) Can you make sure that your host cells don't chew up your DNA (since many organisms have sophisiticated mechanisms for identifying which DNA is their own and which isn't)? Can you make sure that your DNA/RNA actually gets translated (are there the correct non-coding sequences to get your host cell's replicative machinery to get started on your nucleic acids)? Can you make sure that those translated peptide chains get folded correctly, since many proteins require chaperones to help them fold or require post-transcriptional modification? Point is, you need something more carefully targetted than a bunch of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that you dug up from PubMed. If you're simply trying to infect people with an already existing bug, getting copies of that pathogen - particularly the ones still extant as human or animal infections - will be easier. If you're using genetically modified organisms, there's a lot of things you'll be changing, and things will get even less... simple.

There's a huge difference between a toxin and a contagious pathogen.

It depends. Take Ebola: Ebola is a nightmare disease. Literally. I read "The Hot Zone" more than a decade ago and continue to have nightmares about the first chapter. But. Unless you come into direct contact with bodily fluids from a victim, you are likely to be terrified but, in the end, safe. On the other hand, meet sarin gas (or the chemical weapon of your choice.) Sarin may not spread to people beyond the affected area, but if the person next to you has begun to be affected by it, you are probably about to be very, very unhappy as well. In that situation, I might actually prefer Ebola, which doesn't seem to have taken to airborne contagion yet. Every day that you take the subway without being gassed is a day that you've miraculously escaped some evil home chemist killing you with ricin or sarin - which (particularly the former) are arguably easier to obtain and prepare than the scariest of the BL3 and BL4 pathogens, and at least as dangerous. DIY bio does not necessarily pose a unique threat to public health and safety.

You say "Again, I don't know the particulars, but even if this is complex and painstaking with current technology, I have great faith that more efficient methods will be found." Though I suspect I may have a better understanding of where we are right now (not as far as you think), I certainly believe we'll learn more and our techniques will become more efficient and powerful. However, I think that for several reasons - cost, experience, necessary technical accumen, and access to raw materials - anyone attempting to do this with the resources of a real lab will be much, much more likely to meet with success. As I myself pointed out, among the few successful would-be modern biological terrorists is the anthrax fellow, who worked for a government lab with access to one of the few permitted stocks of anthrax. They were, in fact, able to trace him in part because the particular strain of anthrax came from that facility. I'll unhappily wager that the next major bioterrorist will also have had access to a real lab, probably at a fairly high level. However, careful regulation of the truly scary stuff will at least minimize the likelihood that this hypothetical bioterrorist will succeed; regulation (beyond reasonable safety regulations) of people making E. coli that act like XOR gates will do nothing to prevent such scenarios.

You say "I think we might want to get ahead of this one"; honestly, the answer to this is more, not less, research. We're long past the point where a single educated madman could learn enough to kill dozens or even hundreds of people with relative ease using chemical or biological weapons. If you think that such a person would stop at the DIY bio level - adding GFP proteins to bacteria to make them glow in pretty patterns - instead of getting access to an actual lab domestically or in a struggling or failed country so that they could produce enough of their carefully engineered weapon to do some damage, you're deluding yourself. The question is, at this point, whether we'll kill the DIY bio scene to prevent it (just as banning Erlenmeyer flasks in Texas has stopped the production of drugs, many of which are much harder to make than ricin, right?) or whether we'll focus on developing antidotes and responses - with the help of hobbyists, even - and actually "get ahead of this one."
posted by ubersturm at 11:21 PM on May 19, 2009


How about this - another way to stop the super-killer-diseases would be to eliminate long-distance traveling. And that would stop both man-made ones and natural ones as a side-benefit. So why should just the sciencey geeks (who, by the way, are probably the ones who would actually be fighting one of these apocalyptic epidemics) suffer? Why shouldn't the travel enthusiasts and the people who travel for business or to go and visit Aunt Jeanie, who are actually creating disease vectors through their activities, pick up a little of this doomsday-stopping action.

... said erstwhile engineer will kill a few thousand, or a few million, and then we'll all go berserk and clamp down on every test tube we lay eyes on for the next twenty years.

What you're basically saying is, "Just in case we do stupid things in the future, let's do them now instead."

It's not that weaponized diseases aren't going to happen, it's like trying to prevent fires by regulating candles, matches, and lighters. You just aren't going to prevent all or even probably most fires from happening that way and you aren't actually going to be achieving control over all sources of home-made fire, you're mostly going to be making yourself feel good while screwing up a bunch of legitimate activities.
posted by XMLicious at 11:53 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Edgewise, the days of writing a virus in a text editor are a lot further in the future than you think. Designer viruses aren't some emerging threat just over the horizon; they're far-off futuristic sci-fi shit. That's simply not a sound basis for banning people's hobbies.
posted by ryanrs at 2:31 AM on May 20, 2009


I just can't wait until we have to download virus definitions for ourselves as well as our computers. Maybe that will finally convince people to update regularly.
posted by adamdschneider at 5:59 AM on May 20, 2009


You are totally missing the point. I'm talking about the wide dissemination (no pun intended) of technology capable of making new microorganisms from scratch.

OK, there are a couple ways to approach what you're saying - First, what do you mean by "new microorganism"? If you add up every generation since anything you'd call "homo sapiens" first walked the Earth, that's three or four months worth of E. coli doublings. Forced evolution is probably enough to get new microorganisms in a reasonable time if you’re patient.

But what defines a species in bacteria is different than in animals. I probably have more DNA in common with the average tube worm than E. coli strains K-12 (the one genetic engineers wuv) and O157 (the one that makes shiga toxin and the news so regularly) have in common with one another. Still, if you're willing to call a knockout or sticking a plasmid that codes for a novel protein into an E. coli a new microorganism then that technology has been widely available for years now. It really doesn't take much in the way of special equipment.

If you want to talk pure technology and chemical synthesis, for the longest time I had the complete blueprints for a DNA microarrayer on one of my USB drives. The works. Parts lists with vendors, circuit board templates, code for the microcontrollers, the whole nine yards. If I wanted to blow a couple thousand on the thing I could have built it in my basement and made all the DNA microarrays a man could want! It’s still on my hard drive somewhere and I'm pretty sure it's still out there on the web, but you can now buy one cheaper than you can make it. If you just want to make DNA without bothering with the arraying, it would be easier to develop a machine, but I don’t have blueprints or anything. And you can do noisy PCR with some reagents, and ice bucket and a hot plate.

The notion that someone trying to grow bigger pumpkins or fluorescent hamsters is going to accidentally create anthrax-leprosy mu is naïve. That a hypothetical bad guy is going to go to this kind of effort when it's so much easier to do something conventional and off the shelf like stage a terrorist attack in Mumbai and then prank call someone in Pakistan who happens to have their finger on the big red button…. Not that that isn’t scary too.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:25 AM on May 20, 2009


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