Sunday, October 13, 2013


Biohackers: The Next Computer Revolution, or Global Catastrophe in the Making?


It's become a commonplace to bemoan the fact that technological development has been proceeding at such a rapid clip that humans, still burdened with their Neolithic brains, cannot even comprehend what's happening. Many would say we're incapable of making wise decisions about how to handle our vast new powers.
So far, our dilemmas have mostly revolved around our increasingly efficient methods of taking life. Now, however, we can also make it. And the ability to do so is no longer solely invested in white-jacketed cadres of latter-day Drs. Frankenstein. It's within reach of anyone with a few bucks for the proper tools, some free time, and Internet access.
Welcome to the Next Big Thing: biohacking (or "DIYbiology," as it's sometimes called).
Few are aware of this new phenomenon. Yet it has the potential to transform our world, for good or ill, more than just about anything else out there. Seriously. You see, biohacking grants individuals the ability to create synthetic life forms.
It's all about gene sequencing. The first complete cellular genome sequences—from bacteria—weren't worked out until 1995. That required a lot of money, an elaborate lab, and some genius-level human brain power. But in the few short years since then, the game has changed completely.
Why? Because of the merging of some of the irresistible trends of our age: instant information; computerization of everything that can be digitized, including most knowledge and fine motor functions; and sharply falling prices for sophisticated electronic equipment and the software to run it.
Most important, biohacking is now possible because of the price of the raw materials. This chart shows the exponential decline in the cost of producing DNA base pairs:

As DNA got cheaper, people realized they could experiment with it. And before you could say "whose molecule is that?," a revolution was brewing.
Like so many of the others that preceded it—the personal computer, the Internet, 3D printing—this one is being powered by a loosely organized, dedicated coalition of young technogeeks with a largely open-source view of the world and the knowledge that they can create new life forms in their garage.
They are, by most measures in a world that values specialization, amateurs. But these amateurs are not unlike those who once inhabited the Berkeley Homebrew Computer club… like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
In other fields of science, such a dramatic rise in enthusiast tinkerers has presaged extraordinarily positive developments. But, as with every technological innovation, DIYbio is not without a potential dark side. Which raises a rather provocative question:
What happens when the world of scientific exploration—and, more specifically, genetic experimentation—opens up to anyone with a broadband connection and a few pieces of lab equipment you can buy off of eBay?
Or, to put it a little more dramatically, do you get a cure for cancer, or do you get World War Z?

Let There Be New Life Forms…

The term "biohacking" can be used to denote any tinkering with the body that involves adding technology to enhance or improve human capabilities. But for our purposes, we'll use the narrower meaning of genetic engineering conducted in non-institutional settings. Biohackers in general are driven by the desire to openly increase our knowledge base, sharing their discoveries and inviting others freely to make modifications without regard to patents, profits, or approval by governmental watchdogs.
Biohackers constructed their temple in 2009, with the establishment of Brooklyn-based Genspace, the world's first government-compliant DIY biotech lab.
Genspace is the democratization of science in a nutshell, a nonprofit funded by membership dues, tuition fees, and donations from supportive nonmembers. You can attach yourself to one of the scientists already embarked on a project, or you can set up one of your own. The only credential you need to bring is your enthusiasm for the subject, with Ph.D.s onsite to help you through the rough spots.
While members supply much of their own equipment, Genspace provides the specialized, costlier biotech gear such as autoclaves, incubators, and PCR machines. (PCR stands for "polymerase chain reaction"; a PCR machine is the indispensable tool used by genetics researchers to quickly generate millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence.)
Genspace members pay only $100 a month for access to top-flight people and hardware and, perhaps equally important, for freedom. As cofounder Ellen Jorgensen points out, "[Y]ou can work on a project and you don't have to justify to anyone that it's going to make a lot of money, that it's going to save mankind, or even that it's feasible." Just do it.
The lab may once have been unique, but the idea is spreading across the globe. In the US alone, there are now about a dozen community biolabs, or "hackerspaces," as they're known. Along with Genspace, they include Boston's BOSSLAB, BioCurious in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles' LA Biohackers Lab (the, um, LAB Lab).
They cooperate among themselves and also with a loose, international confederation of biohackers called, appropriately enough, DIYBio, which lists 15 organized DIY groups in North America, 11 in Europe, two in Asia, and two in Australia/New Zealand.

Down the Unmapped Yellow Brick Road

The path to making synthetic life is remarkably straightforward. For example, some biohackers wanted to make a plant that glows in the dark. Their plan:
First, special software is used to design a new DNA sequence incorporating bioluminescence genes. Next, the new DNA sequences are printed out. Finally, the printed DNA is inserted into a special type of bacterium which can transfer its DNA into Arabidopsis, a small flowering member of the mustard family. The bacteria inject the new DNA into the cell nucleus of the flowers, which pass it on to their seeds, which can then be grown until they light up.
Obviously, this project and others like it would not be possible without access to some very sophisticated yet affordable hard- and software.
Genome Compiler, based in California and Israel, is the primary software provider. This company's stated goal is to help "design and program living things the same way that we design computer code," and it embraces "a vision of making biological design easier, cheaper, and open to people outside the research labs." You can actually download the Standard version of its compiler program from the company's website—for free.
But it's San Francisco-based Cambrian Genomics that is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. This all-but-invisible startup has developed a revolutionary laser-printing system for DNA synthesis that supplies the preselected DNA 10,000 times more cheaply than conventional tech, with a dramatically reduced error rate. Its website is not very informative—perhaps because it has financial ties to DARPA—and if you go there you will find only a street address, phone number, and email.
CEO Austen Heinz is, however, a bit more forthcoming. He's posted a video in which he rhapsodizes about "democratizing creation." In computer terms, he says, DIYbio is still at the punch-card level.
His efforts are "designed to change behavior," Heinz says. "Every biology lab in the world will become more virtualized. They'll design code on a computer and then print out DNA. A biologist on a small budget should be able to design 50,000 different constructs at a time." He doesn't offer any further details on pricing, except to say that he already has some early paying clients. As to financing, you have to do some digging, but in addition to DARPA, the company appears to have significant backing from some high-powered Silicon Valley VC outfits. A Cambrian IPO would likely be a hot one.

The Future: Prospects and Concerns

Cambrian boasts among its founders Dr. George Church, a Harvard geneticist and author of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. He believes that DNA manipulation has the capacity to solve all of the world's problems. Just for starters: "We can now replace petroleum for fuels, chemicals, plastics, antibiotics and so forth. We can now start making those with biologically engineered machines."
Dr. Church, however, adds a caveat: "I think we should be quite cautious. That doesn't mean that we should put moratoriums on new technologies, but it means licensing, surveillance, doing tests."
That implies a certain level of government oversight. Which, in a way, puts Church at odds with labs like Genspace and the whole biohacking movement—and it foreshadows the looming, potentially epic conflict between authoritarian control and the democratization of biotechnology.
But how real is the danger, and what is the DIYbio community doing about it?
Everyone admits that there are risks involved in fooling around with synthetic life forms. But the biggest one is the threat of bioterrorism, and that's probably not going to come from the public DIYbio community. The horrible killer virus that unleashes World War Z is far more likely to emerge from a secret lab of some dedicated terrorist group. And you can be sure that the international intelligence agencies are on high alert for signs of any such development.
As for regulation, the US government so far hasn't taken any steps to control at-home biology. One assumes that it will, at some point. But if it does—and it could, through limiting access to DIY biological materials, for example—it might succeed only in driving amateur labs underground, creating a vast new criminal enterprise in the process.
In an attempt to fend off onerous regulation, biohackers themselves are being proactive. As reported in TheScientist:
"In December 2011, Genspace … recruited an external advisory board of distinguished academic, government, and industry professionals to answer safety-related questions. The board also reviews the appropriateness of certain projects requiring a Biosafety Level 1 environment, ensures adherence to National Institutes of Health (NIH) recombinant DNA guidelines, and helps minimize the use of potentially hazardous reagents. For the larger DIYbio community, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars launched the 'Ask a Biosafety Expert' web portal, which allows anyone to submit biosafety- and biosecurity-related questions to a panel of biosafety professionals for a rapid response. And in the spring of 2011, the Wilson Center and drafted the first-ever DIYbio code of conduct, which serves as a framework for helping achieve a vibrant, productive, and safe DIYbio community. These initiatives demonstrate that citizen scientists understand the risks associated with their work and feel a sense of responsibility to mitigate those risks."

The NeoBiologic Age

The Ages of Man have been many, from Paleo- to Neolithic and on through Bronze, Iron, Dark, Industrial, Atomic, Electronic, and Information. Now we are on the threshold of what might well be termed the NeoBiologic Age, and this one may involve the biggest leap forward of any. For the first time—and whether or not we have the wisdom for it—we're playing around with the creation of synthetic life. The ability to do so is not going to be confined to some elite caste which guards its secrets. It's going to be the province of anyone who can make a modest investment in the relevant soft- and hardware.
No one can predict where that will lead. With so many more people conjuring up potential cancer cures, we may well get one far sooner than if the quest had remained confined to staffs of bio-pharma companies. Or we may get a new organism that kills healthy cells, not cancerous ones.
That coin is in the air.
Forty years ago, visionary Whole Earther Stewart Brand remarked that, "We are as gods so we might as well get good at it."
Even he couldn't have known how right he was.

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Doug Hornig 

An editor at Casey Research, Doug Hornig’s work can be read in "BIG GOLD" a monthly newsletter which focuses on mid- to large-cap gold stocks; "What We Now Know" – a free bi-weekly e-letter covering trends in investments, geopolitics, the economy, health and technology; and "The Daily Resource" an economy and investment column on A former Edgar Award nominee, finalist for the Virginia Prize in both fiction and poetry, and a past winner of the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting competition, Doug lives on 30 mountainous acres in a county that just got its first stop light. He is an admitted political junkie, but hates all political parties. Doug has authored ten books and has written articles for Business Week, Playboy and more.

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