Biohackers

Excerpted from The Wall Street Journal:

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. Some of them buy DNA online, then fiddle with it in hopes of curing diseases or finding new biofuels.

But are biohackers a threat to national security?

The full article notes that one defense of such biohackers is “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.” This defense, however, is weak on two points: 1) the possibility of naturally occurring pathogens does not mitigate the danger of man-made pathogens, and 2) the frequency of such naturally occurring pathogens is chance-based, whereas the intentional actions of malicious biohackers could greatly increase the frequency of man-made pathogens.

Ultimately, though, people cannot be isolated from microorganisms. Unlike, say, isolating fissionable nuclear materials from most people, microorganisms are essential for our survival and permeate our existence. Also, the empirical evidence is that the vast plethora of intentionally genetically modified organisms to date have not been a scourge or a plague. On the other hand, there is no a priori definable line between “safe” and “unsafe” biohacking, given that each genetic modification ventures into new territory for which we have either no models, or very simplistic ones, as to the effects of such modified organisms on local and global ecosystems.

It would seem that biohacking will only increase over time, as our understanding of genetic manipulation increases, and the tools and additional raw materials become more sophisticated and more readily available. For good or ill, for good or ill.

 

Edit:

Also see: Schmidt, M. “Diffusion of synthetic biology: a challenge to biosafety“. Systems and Synthetic Biology 2(1):1-6. DOI:10.1007/s11693-008-9018-z

 

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