SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with
the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the
basic building blocks of life itself.
Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge
available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms
through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling
in university and corporate laboratories.
In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old
computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop
genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the
presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby
formula and pet food deadly.
"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while
learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she
So far, no major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody's
kitchen or garage.
But critics of the movement worry that these amateurs could one day
unleash an environmental or medical disaster. Defenders say the future
Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the
Many of these amateurs may have studied biology in college but have no
advanced degrees and are not earning a living in the biotechnology
field. Some proudly call themselves "biohackers" — innovators who push
technological boundaries and put the spread of knowledge before
In Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up a community
lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment, including
a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80
degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of
Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in
college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new
vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for
example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.
Cowell said such unfettered creativity could produce important discoveries.
"We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a
game," he said.
Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for
fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in
She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and
getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green
fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than
$100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel
electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for
less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf
Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned
that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and
cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental
"Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal
location, there's no safety process in place," he said.
Some also fear that terrorists might attempt do-it-yourself genetic
engineering. But Patterson said: "A terrorist doesn't need to go to
the DIYbio community. They can just enroll in their local community
That news made slashdot too (and your submission, too):
"Amateurs Are Trying Genetic Engineering At Home"
the_kanzure points out ths AP story on amateur genetic engineering,
excerpting: "The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the
Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic
building blocks of life itself. Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth
of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to
create new life forms through genetic engineering a field long dominated by
Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories." Reader resistant
has a few ideas about how to use this sort of lab: "Personally, I'd like to
whip up a reasonably long-lasting and durable paint made with dye based on
squid genes that glows brightly enough to allow 'guide lines' to be daubed
along hallway baseboards, powered by a very low trickle of electricity.
Plus, a harmless glowing yogurt would make for a cool prank."
Here is the obvious difference from working on "Clanking Replicators" or
other mechanical-electronic technology like sustainability stuff in your
garage and working on gene-splicing biotech in your garage -- the first
probably won't give you cancer, and the second one probably will. :-(
I'm not saying industrial chemicals used in mechanical manufacturing aren't
dangerous (even just breathing outgassing of paint fumes), or that working
with the stuff in circuit boards and ICs can't give you cancer -- it's just
that there is orders of magnitude in difference or risk for the average
Do-it-yourselfer at home compared to biotech.
Most of the chemicals to do gene slicing, PCR, and so on are nasty stuff for
meat-based organisms like people precisely because they do nasty stuff to
meat-based materials (rearrange DNA, splice in glowing markers into DNA, use
radioactive tracers to mark DNA, etc.).
For that reason, and the obvious one on accidental release of
invisible-to-the-unaided-eye self-replicating organisms, I don't see it
being smart to do biotech stuff outside a university lab (and those labs are
also dangerous places, but at least we know where they are).
Three things I previously wrote to you on this:
"Re: On college and space habitats"
"Reading this book:
is the best advice I can give you (ever).
"At the school, Sparrowhawk masters his craft with amazing ease, but his
pride and arrogance grow even faster than his skill and, in his hubris, he
attempts to conjure a dead spirit - a dangerous spell which goes awry. He
inadvertently summons a spirit of darkness which attacks and scars him. The
being is driven off by the Archmage, who exhausts himself in the process and
dies shortly thereafter.""
Also from there (indicating a safer way to approach DIY-biotech):
A lot of research is done on the computer these days by simulation.
"BioSim is a Network of Excellence established by the European Commission
under its 6th Framework Programme. BioSim was initiated on December 1, 2004.
The main objective of the Network is to demonstrate how the use of modern
simulation technique through a deeper and more qualitative understanding of
the underlying biological, pathological and pharmacological processes can
lead to a more rational drug development process, improved treatment
procedures, and a reduction in the needs for animal experiments. With its 26
academic, 10 industrial and 4 regulatory partners, the BioSim Network
commands a wide range of biomedical expertise. At the same time, the network
involves leading experts in pharmacokinetics, computer simulation, and
complex systems theory. The purpose of the network is to develop in silico
simulation models of cellular, physiological and pharmacological processes
to provide a deeper understanding of the biological processes and help the
pharmaceutical industry maintain its competitive power."
Also from an item in that thread, on my own experiences around biotech:
"I've spent too many years around highly regulated universities and known of
accidents or poor practices leading to contamination of areas I passed
through or used regularly with stuff like radioactive phosphorus and PCR
chemicals to be excited at the thought of neighbors doing that next door,
sorry. :-( I'd rather seen that done in isolated space habitat modules."
Anyway, sorry, I think DIYBiotech right now in garages is just not a good idea.
That said, I read this a couple days ago:
"Time to Reboot America" By Thomas L. Friedman
And some of this:
"Readers' comments on Time to Reboot America"
One comment references this:
"What Shortage of Scientists and Engineers?"
By John Tierney
Lots of comments there on the failure of the USA to foster collaborative
science and technology, and its eroding edge in all that (instead promoting
finance and competition and offshoring). Pages and pages. And I only read
some. And already I saw many first hand perspectives about how the PhD
system is failing and how science and engineering is disrespected in the USA
compared to other fields like finance, law, and medicine.
Some of that is just what I've been on about in Post-Scarcity Princeton. :-)
And the general explanation these people at the NYTimes are missing:
"The Big Crunch" by David Goodstein (Vice Provost of Caltech)
The vice *provost* of *Caltech* (one of the most respected universities in
the USA) has been writing and testifying to Congress on this issue for a
decade or two, and hardly anyone seems to be listening.
Why doesn't some university have a conference about the overproduction of
PhDs relative to economic demand and the general failure of the USA as a
society promoting scientific literacy or careers making real things?
Maybe the short answer is, the university system does not want to know?
But at the point where there are ten pages of NYTimes reader comments
*agreeing* both that the USA has too many scientists and engineers for the
current economy and also that the USA is going down the tubes, then it seems
time to end the Ostrich act of a head in the sand.
Just one example of stuff mentioned in those comments by the author -- a
"Don't Become a Scientist!"
"As examples, consider two of the leading candidates for a recent Assistant
Professorship in my department. One was 37, ten years out of graduate school
(he didn't get the job). The leading candidate, whom everyone thinks is
brilliant, was 35, seven years out of graduate school. Only then was he
offered his first permanent job (that's not tenure, just the possibility of
it six years later, and a step off the treadmill of looking for a new job
every two years). The latest example is a 39 year old candidate for another
Assistant Professorship; he has published 35 papers. In contrast, a doctor
typically enters private practice at 29, a lawyer at 25 and makes partner at
31, and a computer scientist with a Ph.D. has a very good job at 27
(computer science and engineering are the few fields in which industrial
demand makes it sensible to get a Ph.D.). Anyone with the intelligence,
ambition and willingness to work hard to succeed in science can also succeed
in any of these other professions. "
And I'd previously linked on OpenVirgle to Freeman Dyson saying essentially
the same thing on the PhD system.
"You students are proud possessors of the PhD, or some similar token of
academic respectability. You have endured many years of poverty and hard
labor. Now you are ready to go to your just rewards, to a place on the
tenure track of the university, or on the board of directors of a company.
And here am I, a person who never had a PhD myself and fought all my life
against the PhD system and everything it stands for. Of course I fought in
vain. The grip of the PhD system on academic life is tighter today than it
has ever been. But I will continue to fight against it for as long as I
live. In short I am proud to be heretic."
Dyson also mentions DIY-biotech, by the way:
"Biotechnology will become as domesticated as computer games and children
and housewives will create their new animal and plant species at home. Most
people don't realize that this will happen much like John von Neumann didn't
appreciate computer games as a major source of the 21st century entertainment"
However, one reason I disagree is that the *ethical* dimensions are
different, at least for intelligent creatures that can feel pain (which for
me starts at maybe the insects on up, and maybe even plants).
So, there we have three scientists all saying the same thing about the
social failure of our current systems of education and research, each with a
different situation in academia (Vice Provost of Important University, Big
Research Institute star, and Professor) all in this case in Physics (which
is *not* even as glutted as biotech).
Anyway, that's all part of the problem of DIY-biotech.
From ten years ago (and the biotech scientific career situation has gotten
"The Short Career Half-life of Scientists" by Arthur E. Sowers, PhD
"This essay is devoted to the question of how long the typical
biomedical science career lasts. In the middle of the essay,
I studied faculty job turnover at two medical schools and at
the end reviewed career half-life for physicians in a clinical
setting and lawyers."
Also related to Sowers' work:
"Ayala Ochert examines disturbing evidence that shows that only a minority
of scientists can look forward to a lifelong career in their chosen field.
What does a scientist's career have in common with a radioactive element
like tritium? They both have a half-life that is measured in years, not
decades. In the case of tritium, it has a half-life of just over 12 years,
but the "career half-life" of the typical biomedical scientist may be only
half as long. The half-life of tritium is how long it takes before 50 per
cent of the atoms have decomposed, but in the case of a group of scientists,
their career half-life is how long it takes before half of them have left
the profession, which may be as little as six years. Lawyers and doctors, on
the other hand, can generally look forward to a career that lasts until
retirement. Young people embarking on a career in science are generally
well aware that they will be paid much less than similarly qualified people
in the so-called professions. It is something that many accept, albeit
reluctantly, in return for that "warm feeling inside" that comes from doing
what they love best. But far fewer realise how much worse their career
prospects are. "Most are overconfident and totally unaware that they will
face a rude awakening when they go out and look for work, and most will find
low pay, low job security, and limited potential for the future. Doctors and
lawyers will be much better off," says Art Sowers, who compiled the figures
on career half-lives. ... "
So, this may explain why there are so many people with biotech knowledge
(even just at the undergraduate level) who cannot practice their trade
inside the university and industrial research system and are thinking about
doing what they love in their garage -- even though IMHO that is a very,
very unsafe thing to do. As unsafely run as many university biotech labs
are, as least you know where they are and they can loosely check on each
other. For example, I heard that radioactive phosphorus contamination
problem was discovered when the first-year graduate student involved set off
detectors in another lab when she walked by the door of the other lab two
Anyway, I just think DIY-bio is heading for a world of hurt, sorry. As I
said earlier, I think it is mostly the kind of stuff best done in space
habitations in fifty years from now. :-) But, failing that, I feel it is
best done in facilities designed for that.
Still, because of the exponential growth of the few PhDs given money:
"Fellowships in Sustainability Science"
we can't solve the social dynamics problem right now by just throwing money
I don't know if this is a scam or not, but I still like the scale of this
vision (and it is interesting to me to see an Iranian newspaper's view on
the issue, for some diversity):
"The way forward: Fighting global poverty (Part 3)"
ORE Incubators are a simple mechanism, but where they unleash the creative
thinking of humankind. They are huge research centers where inventors,
leading-edge indigenous/endogenous scientist/engineers/technologists create
and make new things with eminent world leading scientist's et al. They are
manned and managed by the best scientists that a nation can offer, but not
in a totally scholastic term, but in creative thinking and inventive terms -
the knowledge-based hands-on mentality.
Overall, therefore to give you a perspective of the size and purpose of a
typical ORE Incubator, they are circular in construction which allows major
inventions and technologies to be developed logistically, wheeled in and out
and where the overall floor area is approximately 11,000m2.
Therefore, they are large research, development and technology producing
buildings, larger than most research buildings in the world today but where
certainly together, they form the world's largest network of research
complexes by a very high margin. That is the size of the strength we need
though to solve global issues.
The Incubators allow access of independent inventors and innovators (the
ideas people) throughout the world and within nations, and where presently
the vast majority are excluded as I have said before from advanced corporate
and institutional research centers.
ORE Incubators are considered to be the best in the world and where ideas
collide and are supported by the most innovative minds from throughout the
world and from all advanced disciplines and professions.
Indeed, many new fundamental discoveries and technologies will be initiated
and created within the walls of the ORE Incubators and these would be
world-beaters that would address basically human sustainability and global
It was calculated in the 1990s that an ORE Incubator was required to service
every 6 million humans. Therefore, the world requires around 1,150
I feel Dr. Hill quoted there is too pessimistic about world problems,
personally, BTW. And here is someone who doesn't like his organization:
"Who is David Hill and why is he saying all these terrible things about
I'm not taking sides on that spat. :-( And after Bernie Madoff, everything
is going to get closer scrutiny. But the problem is that many successes
start as someone hyping something as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And what he
proposes is not that different from what I wanted to do in the 1990s:
Except, from casual glances, I haven't yet seen him get the self-replicating
idea for those research centers? :-) Anyway, I can cut Dr. Hill some slack
even for hyping if he is (just like I cut Bryan some slack :-).
And I too can see there are issues with funneling all the world's knowledge
through one small organization like Wikipedia at his point, since while
technical information may be fairly sound, anything about politics and
personality is subject to edit wars, and in that way, a distributed version
of something more like Google Knol with articles owned by individuals or
groups presented together might be better (and then we could have articles
reconciling the controversies, etc.) (And that's the "Social Semantic
Desktop" vision, isn't it? :-)
Anyway, scam or next-great-thing, I do think the picture of such a research
center on David Hill's site is cool:
As is the problem statement: "Think back. At some point in our lives most of
us will have come up with a new and potentially marketable idea. Given the
necessary development, that idea could now be improving the lives of others.
It is common sense that experiencing the world gives people the inspiration
to improve it and the facts and figures back this up - far more ideas
originate in the minds of the general public than in closed Research and
Development facilities. Unfortunately, there are few open forums and
research facilities available for the general public to develop their ideas."
I'm mainly just saying I find that idea of these large physical centers
which are in some sense open to the public to be intriguing (even if all
"open to the public" might mean is, you need some sort of academic degree or
certification to get bench space of a certain type). The internet seems to
have changed the dynamic of collaboration making it more possible for people
to collaborate at home on software and using simulation (what I recommend
for DIY-biotech right now). But, I can still see the value of research
centers for hands-on work, and if universities are failing at that role,
perhaps we need something else that looks more like the Institute for
Advanced Study (a motel for scholars with office space and lab space).
So, if people do want to play with DIY-biotech, those are the sorts of
centers maybe we should build, where it is easier to do safely, and failing
that, I'd suggest keeping to computer simulations for now.
To begin with, where are her gloves?
Where is her chemical hood with a negative air pressure system?
Where is the fire suppression system?
Where are the material inventory and related material safety data sheets?
Where is the radiation and gas monitoring equipment?
What are the health and safety implications for other tenants in her
And she has managed to get herself labeled as a "rebel" which does not bode
well for others trying to safely do open amateur research. So, she is
harming the larger cause IMHO.
Sorry, to me, this photo shows a reckless disregard both for her own
personal safety, that of any of her possible children-to-be-born, the safety
of those around her, and the continued progress of the professional amateur
This one photo may be enough to destroy what millions of other people have
worked towards; I hope not.
Still, as my previous comment on the unavailability of jobs or lab space for
most people with biotech training, I can understand the social despair that
drives her to this (no jobs, no funding, no access, because of US priorities
of the war racket and an overproduction of PhDs and other degrees
exponentially relative to funding).
Also, I have no complaint about her stated *ends* of "trying to develop
genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the
presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and
pet food deadly". This is just a comment on the *means* she is pursuing that
Now, perhaps I do not understand the materials she is working with. I can
only hope so. Maybe I am overreacting. To my knowledge, the materials that
would be involved in such explorations are highly mutagenic and carcinogenic
-- precisely because their purpose is to alter DNA. And she is not even
using gloves (or at least, not that I can see, perhaps it is a staged
picture or they are very thin and transparent) which seems to indicate
either ignorance or contempt or recklessness. Sorry, concentrated
DNA-altering chemicals are not the kind of stuff you want people in
neighboring apartments messing with if you value your health (even just
wafting through a shared forced air heating system). I don't think this will
end well. She'll be lucky to just be evicted, sorry.
See one of the slashdot comments for people to at least trying to do this right:
"thoughts from someone in the community (Score:5, Insightful)"
"Normally I have to preface my posts with "I am not a XXXX, but". However,
in this case, I actually am a molecular biologist deeply involved in the
synthetic biology community. Here are a few thoughts: ... There is a raging
debate among academics regarding how to introduce these types of technology
to the wider public. We all believe that tinkering in the garage is a good
thing, but how to do is such that we don't end up sued because we
inadvertently provided some kook the sequence for botox, without making
things so controlled that no one wants to take up these basic projects. If
you would like to learn more about the efforts, I would start with, an NSF
sponsored research center (SynBERC) http://www.synberc.org/ of which I am part."
I'm not to worried about the "terrorist" implications because terrorists
would just use something else (cars, gasoline, planes, whatever).
"The efficiency of motor vehicles as terrorist instruments would have
written a tragic record long ago if people were inclined to terrorism. But
almost all auto mishaps are accidents, and while there are seemingly a lot
of those, the actual fraction of mishaps, when held up against the
stupendous number of possibilities for mishap, is quite small. I know it’s
difficult to accept this because the spectre of global terrorism is a
favorite cover story of governments, but the truth is substantially
different from the tale the public is sold."
What I am worried about is the health and safety implications of such
biotech work day-to-day, even ignoring major accidents or organism releases.
And for knowing that, I can thank people like a post-doc at a major research
university who told me about some of these issues (decrying some aspects of
his own lab whose shared air I was indirectly breathing).
At least they have people wearing gloves and better eye protection at SynBERC:
Now, granted the antagonist in the James Bond film "Moonraker" had an evil
end of creating a gas to wipe out all human life on Earth which any decent
human being would frown on,
but you have to applaud Drax's attention to safety in the meanwhile: :-)
"Drax's Venice Laboratory"
"Purpose: to secretly create and test Drax's nerve gas that he is using to
kill all humans on Earth"
I was unable to find online the related video clip (which includes two
scientists dying horribly), but look at the basic aspects of safety even in
that still image on the James Bond wiki:
* There is a highly visible workspace so outsiders can monitor what is going
on and go for help;
* there is a musical lock to keep out people like James Bond who don't know
what they are doing (he causes the death of the scientists there by accident);
* there lots of gleaming glass and steel (not wood) which is easier to clean
in case of accident;
* there is a gas detection system which seals the system off in case of
* the place is well lit and negatively pressured with scrubbers; and so on.
Of course, when you're an evil supervillian like Drax able to afford a fleet
of space shuttles and a lair in space (bank bailout funds?), it is easier to
consider paying for stainless steel instead of wood for easy clean up after
an accident, but my point is, that's the kind of facilities advanced biotech
R&D towards any ends (good or bad) should really have. :-)
Which gets me back to the proposal of the ORE-STEM labs previously mentioned
for giving the general public access to safer facilities (and if needed,
safety training). Or, failing that, for amateurs without access to good safe
lab space with functional hoods etc. to do this work as only computer
And now that I think of that, maybe the point of that Iranian article is to
create a sense of unease among US military planners, that maybe soon
everyone will be doing this? Sadly, the way things go, instead of the best
of both worlds where people working to good ends like Meredith L. Patterson
get easy access to Drax-like facilities in "ORE Incubator" style facilities,
we'll probably get the worst of both worlds with Draxian-evil-geniuses doing
deadly work in Patterson-like uncontained facilities. :-( At least we have
James Bond to protect us. Oops, well he caused that accident by mistake,
didn't he? :-(
FWIW, the MSDSs are in a notebook not visible in the picture, the fire
extinguisher is in the kitchen behind me, there's no fume hood because
I'm not working with anything that outgasses, who the hell thinks I'm
working with anything radioactive?, and I'm not wearing gloves because
in that picture I'm pipetting 50mM saline solution. :P
My neighbours are in far greater danger from bread that's gone moldy
on their counters than from anything I'm working with. It's yogurt
bacteria. You *eat* it.
In Berlin right now for a conference, will reply at length later.
On Fri, Dec 26, 2008 at 10:13 AM, Bryan Bishop <kan...@gmail.com> wrote:
> Before I write a reply, I figure I should forward.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Jim H <gah...@gmail.com>
Date: Fri, Dec 26, 2008 at 12:22 PM
Subject: Re: Fwd: [Open Manufacturing] Amateurs Are Trying Genetic
Engineering At Home (was Fwd: Meredith made AP)
To: DIYbio <diy...@googlegroups.com>
Why don't you just point him at our endless discussions about public
perception and make him realize this has always been at the forefront
of conversation and consideration?
If he really thinks that "this one photo may be enough to destroy what
millions of other people have worked towards", I hope he's serious
about what he says and he realizes this publicity photo is just that
and not any wide spread problem in the DIYbio movement
On Dec 26, 1:16 pm, "Bryan Bishop" <kanz...@gmail.com> wrote:
> Again, before I write a reply, I'm forwarding. I don't really agree
> with Paul, but I'll have to explain that in another email.
> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
> From: Paul D. Fernhout <pdfernh...@kurtz-fernhout.com>
> Date: Fri, Dec 26, 2008 at 7:56 AM
Subject: [Open Manufacturing] Amateurs Are Trying Genetic Engineering
> At Home (was Fwd: Meredith made AP)
> To: openmanu...@googlegroups.com
While it is nice to know there may be good answers to some of these
questions, it doesn't necessarily matter politically if there are perfect
answers for these questions -- that's the nature of pictures and public
reaction to them. There is a picture of someone doing DIY biochemistry
without gloves in her apartment -- same as a picture of someone at an
industrial facility without a hard hat. That's what people are going to
remember, whatever the back story, or if it was staged, and so on. It might
even have been staged by the reporter to get exactly that effect, "oh don't
bother with gloves, just do some saline." etc. if the reporter was looking
for an angle. A person photographed doing biotech stuff without gloves is
just asking for trouble.
And almost everything outgasses. :-(
From the article: "She learned about genetic engineering by reading
scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish
DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for
less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel
electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less
than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model."
How does one genetically alter bacteria or do gel electrophoresis without
some noxious stuff?
"Acrylamide, in contrast to polyacrylamide, is a neurotoxin and must be
handled using appropriate safety precautions to avoid poisoning."
"Polyacrylamide is not toxic, but unpolymerized acrylamide can be present in
the polymerized acrylamide. Therefore it is recommended to handle it with
Maybe I misunderstand the nature of the work, given an article that says
both "trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria" and "So far, no
major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody's kitchen or garage.".
Maybe she uses UV to randomly mutate bacteria and then then tests them, as
opposed to doing actual splicing? It seems like that would take almost
forever. But then why does it say she bought jellyfish DNA? Maybe as a
comparison test and not to splice in? Sure sounded like splicing is planned.
Maybe it isn't. Splicing chemical by definition alter DNA. That's what they
are for. Altering your own DNA by exposure to these chemicals is generally
asking for trouble. Maybe it won't be someday, but it is now as far as I
understand it. But, I haven't set foot in a biotech-related lab for years,
so maybe the state of the art has changed.
Anyway, maybe there are answers, but it at the very least it looks bad.
One of the comments on the original article: "I think the public interest in
science is wonderful, however I have serious reservations about garage
biotechnology. I have my Ph.D. in molecular biology and am employed doing
bio-medical research and genetic engineering. The research institutes are
very tightly regulated in regards to chemicals, waste, bio-hazardous
materials, and radiation to ensure the safety of the researchers and more
importantly, the public and the environment. Until such regulations are
enforced upon DIYers, I would strongly object to such garage science. Even
simple projects such as the one mentioned in this article where GFP under
control of a melamine responsive promoter is being transfected into
Lactobacillus requires selectivity such as antibiotic resistance cassettes
and the risk of releasing engineered resistant bacteria into the environment
is frightening. As devastating as such an event would be, this is the least
of what could happen without strict regulation. It is one thing to build
computers and robots in one's garage, but creating new life forms and
tinkering with things that even Ph.Ds do not completely understand is
Here's the thing, let's say Meridith is an extremely responsible person and
nothing she is doing is remotely dangerous. But most of the stuff going on
in biotech is dangerous (at the very least, to the researchers themselves
and nearby people, with exposure various chemicals). This is all promoting
more and more people to do this in their homes. This seems to me one place
where an apprenticeship model and controlled lab conditions makes a lot of
sense. (Of course, even university apprenticeship models can fail when the
pressure for results and grants can lead to safety being put into the back
seat, but that is is part a function of current crazy economics of academia.)
Personally, I feel, mainly for the safety of the researchers, that all this
biotech and even purely chemistry work -- academic, industrial, and amateur
-- should, as a matter of course, be done by teleoperation in sealed
environments which can be flooded with bleach or heat or halon or other
things as needed. The nuclear industry knows something about this. Example:
"The walls of the hot cell are made of thick radiation-proof material. The
windows are made of two 3" thick plates of lead glass with 3 feet of optical
oil between. The hot cell is equipped with two waldoes, or teleoperator
arms. These are used to perform all operations in the hot cell, such as
disassembly of targets or repair of equipment. An experienced operator can
use wrenches, compressed air tools such as a drill, etc. to perform complex
machining tasks. "
Biotech workcell automation related images:
"A robot recently reported to work at the Agricultural Research Service's
(ARS) National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in
Peoria, Illinois, and its arrival was met with enthusiasm by many scientists
there. The robot in question doesn't walk or talk, however. Rather, it's the
centerpiece of an automated system called the "plasmid-based functional
proteomics work cell." The system's inventors expect it will greatly
streamline studies aimed at harnessing the power of proteins for industrial
applications, like making fuel ethanol from sugars in corn fiber.... Yes,
the ARS center's robot does all that. Thanks to the fast, precise movements
of its mechanized arm and computerized plate tracks, the robot will carry
out these tasks hundreds or thousands of times faster than a human. That
will prove critical in searching for genes to lift the yeasts over a major
hurdle that's kept them from reaching peak performance as ethanol producers:
their inability to metabolize sugars locked up in corn fiber."
Anyway, you read something like "thousands of times faster than a human" and
then add in a safety factor and DIY-Biotech done by hand just doesn't seem
that compelling to me as a value proposition for spending spare time. Now,
if we were talking robots at home, then maybe that is a different story. Or,
as in the article: "n Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up
a community lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment,
including a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80
degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria
alive." So, one might imagine a group of individuals having their own
teleoperated work cell someday.
A current gardening example:
"The Distributed Robotics Garden"
"Our long-term goal is to implement an autonomous greenhouse based on
autonomous robots and sensors."
A historic gardening example:
"The Telegarden "
"This tele-robotic installation allows WWW users to view and interact with a
remote garden filled with living plants. Members can plant, water, and
monitor the progress of seedlings via the tender movements of an industrial
robot arm. Internet behavior might be characterized as ``hunting and
gathering''; our purpose is to consider the ``post-nomadic'' community,
where survival favors those who work together. "
Such biotech or radiotech or chemtech or clanktech (just made that one up
:-) workcells could even then be accessible to all of any age or ability via
the internet, both for practice through simulation and for real through
teleoperation. Perhaps there would be safeguards as to what reagents or
volumes or organisms or DNA different people could access and strict rules
about when things could be removed from containment. Sure people could break
the system or fool it intentionally, but the point is to make safety easier.
I feel even academia and industry are lax about a lot of safety issues, and
teleoperation would even help protect students from their advisers. :-(
So in that regard, what this picture shows, someone without gloves doing
biochemistry in an apartment is IMHO the complete *opposite* of the way this
*entire* biotech industry should be going, sorry. (And radioactive materail
handling technology and maybe chemical technology and maybe even clanking
manufacturing technology.) I'd rather see biotech happening in sealed
environments in space, but failing that, at least in sealed workcells and
labs on Earth.
I don't think any amount of, "I was just doing X, and X is safe", is going
to convince me (or the general public), sorry. Nor will references to
endless discussions make me comfortable either (as Marc points out). This is
not to be irrational (I hope :-); this is to say, along the lines of a
"precautionary principle", that if the only way you can convince me about
this particular scene being safe is by my having to completely understand
everything about what you are doing (and how you are avoiding the vast
numbers of things that could go wrong and be dangerous to everyone if you
mess up), and thus I need to learn exactly what you are combining and how
you are combining it in precise detail and also the levels of what your
skills and knowledge are to assess the scene's safety, then, frankly, IMHO
it's just too much bother (and risk) to allow it out of the lab at all,
Anyway, Bryan, in response to your question of why don't I sign up for
DIYBio, as with the "bother" argument above, it's not my cup of tea. :-)
Also, I'm really not convinced it is worth the effort to emphasize biotech
of any sort right now when there are so many obvious less risky solutions
(both politically and safety-wise) to sustainability issues (or space
habitations) that don't involve making self-replicating things we can't see.
Stuff like improved home insulation, solar panels, wind turbines,
agricultural robots, preventive health care, reduction in pollution from
industry and power generation, flexible manufacturing, 3D printing, web
technologies, and so on. There is so much other low hanging fruit. And, as
above, once we improve those capacities, then one can do biotech more safely
and easily through teleoperation, and we will have a better infrastructure
to deal with the consequences of biotech as a society when it occasionally
Now, I'm willing to reconsider that, but I don't see the argument here. Even
in the specific case of melanine contamination, that was done for economic
reasons (to boost protein levels in milk to make more money), so if you fix
the economy (as in make it post-scarcity), that is a non-issue. There is
also well known melanine contamination related to regular industrial
processes, but that's a materials thing. So, in the face of an obvious
danger of mutagenic chemical use or a releasing invisible organisms that can
self-replicate and kill, I would think there needs to be a high bar of
evidence both that the results are likely to be worth the risks, and that
the risks are being well managed. While I cited Gatto before on the safety
of universal motoring proving most people are responsible most of the time,
there is a huge difference between one car out of control and one
Genetically Modified Organism out of control, in terms of the potential
damage. I'll agree that the risks of chemical misuse thought are closer to
the risks of one car out of control, though, although even there, I think it
is human to prefer a risk like a car you can see as opposed to a risk of
contacting a mutagenic chemical which you can not see.
Of course, when talking about hobbies done for aesthetic or other personal
reasons, logical arguments based on different assumptions won't be very
convincing. :-) Nor will it discourage dangerous hobbies done just for the
fact that they can be done. :-)
For good or bad, we live in "interesting times".
I just saw your note after I wrote my previous one, which addressed some of
> I suggest reading everything Rob Carlson has written on this subject,
> but just start with the DARPA letter and the Pace and Proliferation
> piece if you've not seen it before. http://www.synthesis.cc/writing2.html
> Also, the full Freeman Dyson piece is http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20370
I feel in this case Dyson discounts the risks of biotech too greatly (he's a
physicist and mathematician and maybe showing his limits there, though I'm
otherwise reluctant to dismiss him in any way). You or Rob Carlson may well
be right on the pace of proliferation, but I don't have to like that. :-)
> A year ago or so I sent an email to gauge interest in starting an Open
> Source Security Study group. I'd hoped to get John Robb, Rob Carlson,
> perhaps Jamais Cascio to kickstart this. I feel the Lifeboat
> Foundation and others working on Existential risk are neglecting the
> Open Source Organizational model as the key risk management strategy
> for emerging technologies.
> Foresight has launched the open source physical security/nanosensing
> project so perhaps this will be the rallying point. http://www.opensourcesensing.org/
In general, Bryan has pointed out the disconnect between extropians and open
source, as I have about Kurzweil.
> In another of your posts, you mention how we allow people to drive
> with rather minimal training; and indeed automotive accidents are a
> very significant cause of avoidable injury and death.
As I wrote in the previous email, I agree there is a parallel in risk as far
as chemical use (except that the chemicals are invisible). There is no
parallel to the release of a GMO.
> I just don't feel that DIY bio is that much more dangerous. In July,
> I went for a 5 day molecular biology techniques workshop at University
> of BC, to prove to myself that any "monkey" could learn to follow the
> recipe. Now, I have serious criticisms of the University System--as
> we've discussed--and which you seem to share, given your posts
> references to the PHD system. In this case of this course it was
> great because the Prof just offered me a space in the program.
> Anyway, the point is, I was competent enough to handle the materials
> without poisoning myself.
You became competent in handling *some* materials, and not necessarily at a
level of *habit*, but at an intellectual level. That is, you know what is
safe and not safe of obvious dangers, like a driver after five days of
driver ed. But you do not have years of experience doing things safely by
habit. And, risks will continue to change as technologies change.
> Given your other criticisms of the University system, I'm not sure why
> you are so keen to see them retain a monopoly on equipment/lab space,
> etc. An alternative model is the Tech Shop model for community
> labspace, which the DIY group is trying to emulate in Boston.
I agree with the idea of alternatives, is I said in the previous email. I
agree the universities are not perfect. But, as I also said there, I feel
the entire biotech scene (industry, academia, pro-am hobby) needs to shift
to greater regulation and safety. There just is no reason (beyond cost) that
a human being should be anywhere near those chemicals or organisms when that
work can be done through teleoperation of robots.
> As for pcr, I'm involved in another project to commercialize a super
> cheap "10"$ thermocycler. Not only will this be ideal for field
> diagnostics in developing countries, but we expect it will be popular
> with hobbyists in the US also. Yes, there are problems with Ethidium
> Bromide, but we are looking at ways of getting rid of the gels, and
> less toxic chemicals can be substituted.
Someday. But what will be next? Anyway, the fundamental problem is that
chemicals designed to manipulate DNA do exactly that -- manipulate DNA,
which is a risk to the researcher and anyone exposed to those chemicals.
Then there is the risk of organism release. It only takes one disaster to
make the entire DIY-bio endeavor a net negative. Thought I would say the
same about industry and academia. All three should be more tightly regulated
IMHO, and should switch to sealed containment. I just don't see the
compelling argument for *any* of the fruits of biotech.
Let's go down Dyson's list above:
"Our Biotech Future"
* "genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors"
Unneeded and potentially cruel to the animals.
* "There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic
engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids."
And the value of that relative to the risk in negative.
* "Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to
breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits
Cruel, cruel, cruel. You want to be drowning lots of deformed puppies?
* "Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and
children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures,
rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer."
But we already have "seedsavers" so that is a bogus point.
The reason we have corporate monocultures has to do with a broken economics
that values quantity of corn over quality or safety. People are already
rejecting GMOs. They could potentially produce hazardous allergy side
effects. And now there is a controversy over reproductive issues related to
a study in Australia (still to be seen what comes of that, it's back and
forth right now). It's hard to know who to believe with so much money on the
line from US companies.
* "New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming
and deforestation have destroyed."
We don't need GMOs for this. Plenty of existing varieties with better known
* "Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as
painting or sculpture."
Maybe some will. But doing trial and error with animals has ethical
dimensions, see the puppy point above.
Computers and simulation already supply some room for experiment and
creativity. Although even there I feel there are ethical issues relating to
simulated organisms. But, I might say there are ethical issues in how we
behave in dreams, too. Complex ones. :-)
* "The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech
games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age
but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen."
Kids aren't usually that patient.
* "Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the
organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed
grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur."
Again, what are you going to explain about the hatching dinosaur writhing in
* "These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations
will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and
others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious."
Now we are talking. :-)
Dyson goes on: "If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future,
five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped?
Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible
or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose
on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the
limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to
answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to
supply the answers."
So, he presents no answers to the hard questions...
Skipping a bit here...
* "After we have explored this route to the end, when we have created new
forests of black-leaved plants that can use sunlight ten times more
efficiently than natural plants, we shall be confronted by a new set of
Because plants grow in a place with predators, a lot of their energy goes
into "plant defense compounds". Regular breeding and genetic engineering
already minimizes these, and the result is weak unhealthy plants that can
only be propped up with agrochemicals.
Anyway, so, what's wrong with the plants we have now? Or PV panels? Or
windmills? What is the problem these proposed plants are solving? A social
problem? There is enough land paved over (and with accompanying right of
ways) in the USA already to supply our total energy needs several times over.
* "What shall we do with the silicon trash that these plants leave behind them?"
Good question, as are many others he raises there.
* "The new green technology allows us to breed new varieties of animals and
plants as our ancestors did ten thousand years ago, but now a hundred times
faster. It now takes us a decade instead of a millennium to create new crop
plants, such as the herbicide-resistant varieties of maize and soybean that
allow weeds to be controlled without plowing and greatly reduce the erosion
of topsoil by wind and rain. Guided by a precise understanding of genes and
genomes instead of by trial and error, we can within a few years modify
plants so as to give them improved yield, improved nutritive value, and
improved resistance to pests and diseases."
People in rural areas are poor for all sorts of complex reasons. Heifer
International is already helping with regular animals and training. Why not
just support them? There are likely thermodynamic and statistical reasons
domesticated animals can't be a whole lot better then they are now. And then
there is that whole deformed-puppy-in-pain issue, as above.
He probably isn't aware of the plant breeding trade-offs related to plant
defense compounds mentioned above. Organic heirloom crops are already
hardier than most monoculture crops and return a more consistent and
healthier agricultural yield (which is what Dyson says he wants to engineer,
but we have already). The reason organic farmers of such varieties struggle
has to do with *economics* which Dyson's proposal does nothing to fix. Part
of that economic problem has to do with the economics of boom-bust
agricultural years, farm subsidies, shipping subsidies, fossil fuel
subsidies, water subsidies, and related social issues and special interests.
* "Within a few more decades, as the continued exploring of genomes gives us
better knowledge of the architecture of living creatures, we shall be able
to design new species of microbes and plants according to our needs. The way
will then be open for green technology to do more cheaply and more cleanly
many of the things that gray technology can do, and also to do many things
that gray technology has failed to do. Green technology could replace most
of our existing chemical industries and a large part of our mining and
manufacturing industries. Genetically engineered earthworms could extract
common metals such as aluminum and titanium from clay, and genetically
engineered seaweed could extract magnesium or gold from seawater. Green
technology could also achieve more extensive recycling of waste products and
worn-out machines, with great benefit to the environment."
I'm not going to disagree with this in the *long* term. In the short term we
don't need this. There are plenty of existing alternatives right now which
are not being used. See Amory Lovins' "Hypercar" for one example.
"Leading the Detroit Horse to Water"
* "An economic system based on green technology could come much closer to
the goal of sustainability, using sunlight instead of fossil fuels as the
primary source of energy. New species of termite could be engineered to chew
up derelict automobiles instead of houses, and new species of tree could be
engineered to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into liquid fuels instead
Except, as above with Amory Lovins leading Detroit to water more than a
decade ago but they would not drink, we don't need any of this because we
have solutions right now, from Hypecars to solar panels to windmills to
cradle-to-cradle design, and so on.
As for the termites, the ones we have work well enough now, thank you. :-)
We should design termites that might also eat airplanes? No thanks.
Sure, long term the tree idea might work out. There are already trees that
produce useful sap. But this future possibility of even better trees does
not IMHO justify everyone handling concentrated mutagenic chemicals in their
apartments. Abandoned meth labs are already a big enough problem:
"Residential Meth Lab Dangers"
"The use of methamphetamines as an abused drug has risen dramatically in the
last 10 years. The reasons are understandable: it can be made from readily
available materials found in drug stores, home improvement stores, and
agricultural chemical supplies - by mail and the internet. It can be made in
small quantities in a basement, garage, storage space, bathroom or bedroom
in just a few hours. It doesn’t have to be smuggled in from Afghanistan or
Columbia. The dangers are also as dramatic: fire explosions, pollution,
short and long term health effects, contamination of homes, vehicles,
children and law enforcement personnel. In 2004, there were 17,170 meth lab
“incidents” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration National
Clandestine Laboratory Database. The greatest concentration of these meth
labs is in the Midwest, apparently due to availability of the ingredient
anhydrous ammonia, which is a commercial crop fertilizer. But these
clandestine meth labs are appearing everywhere in the U.S."
Anyway, this home lab problem is already not a happy situation.
* "I am not saying that the political acceptance of green technology will be
quick or easy. I say only that green technology has enormous promise for
preserving the balance of nature on this planet as well as for relieving
Except Dyson has ignored the argument that we don't need the things he is
talking about to have a sustainable world that works for everyone. Sure,
someday we may have lots of good biotech. But why race into that when there
is other low hanging fruit and simulations of biotech are still very useful
as learning and research tools?
* "When industries and technologies are based on land and sunlight, they
will bring employment and wealth to rural populations."
And photovoltaic panels and windmills are straightforward solutions we
already know how to build.
So, sorry, while Dyson points to some interesting things, he has no argument
for doing that -- and he himself says at the start essentially he does not.
> But really, given the number of gun accidents each year, I just don't
> understand why DIY bio strikes such a nerve with you.
Ever be around university biotech labs on a regular basis? :-(
Ever been in an elevator with someone with a lab cart with stuff in vials
who is wearing gloves and pushing the buttons? :-(
Anyway, I think there are a whole host of issues here related to endless
assumptions, from economic issues, to personal safety issues, to containment
issues, to value propositinon relative to the obvious alternatives, that I
still don't see much of a case for biotech.
Even in the field of medicine, where historically the benefits to longevity
have come from better nutrition, from quarantine of the ill, from cleaner
water, and from reducing pollution, I feel the biotech value is minimal.
Sure it gives us insulin, but diabetes comes mostly from poor nutrition, and
perhaps eating modern plants bred for quantity instead of quality is part of
So, I remain deeply unconvinced.
I can't disagree that the proliferation is happening though, or that is is
getting cheaper and cheaper for people to do this at home. I'm not convinced
it is worth doing, but I'm sure it will happen at home, same as people
Not knowing them, I'm still sure it is likely that the people on DIYBio mean
well, and are the most responsible of the hobbyist out there. But 17,170
meth lab incidents also point to a lot of recklessness out there with chemicals.
The answer? I still feel there should be a move to containment with
teleoperation across all biotech work cells.
Why isn't that happening? Why does Meridith not have easy access to a
chemical hood and lab space? Economics. Or, in other words, politics. I
don't think that fundamental issue will be solved by people doing biotech at
Maybe I will be proved wrong by some amazing success by a hobbyist (with or
without gloves) making a breakthrough super-plant that is edible, produces
fuel oil, and can be grown into any shape with a little training and then
hardens into wood. But at what risk?
Here's what I hope might be true, but maybe is not. Someone like Meridith
might probably prefer to reclaim her desk at home and do her hobby in a
great lab with a hood and more options for doing more dangerous stuff safely
and easy access to supplies and lots of people to discuss ideas and who
looked out for each other and helped each other learn together. The reason
she does not have that has to do with politics, not technology (except as
our technology reflects our politics). Doing biotech at home does not fix
that social and political problem directly, why a motivated person should
not have access to tools to play with, or to do serious research, or to do
both at once as is often the case.
Still, I can see the hope, as Dyson outlined, that biotech may change
economics of some things. But as I point out, it isn't needed because of
other low hanging (organic) fruit. :-)
> I personally
> expect lifelogging/omniveillance within a decade and I think any
> evaluation of the safety of "garage" biology needs to think about the
> pervasive environmental sensing technologies and total information
> capture that are coming.
Good point. But again, why no just do biotech in containment?
Also, I still question if it is worth the investment of time when there is
so much low hanging fruit in safer directions.
Part of what makes it even worse is that something like nine-tenths of drug
company R&D goes into me-too drugs that are variants of existing drugs with
at best minor improvements, and often being worse. This is like people
writing yet another romance novel on an existing theme after a first success
by someone else because they know there is a market there. No one is willing
to take a chance first on a new romance novel theme, let alone write some
other form of fiction.
My understanding is that almost all the basic biotech-related research is
government funded (and usually takes decades). In a just society IMHO that
research would all be public domain. Instead it is handed over as patents to
the first company to make a deal with the related university (the Bayh-Dole
act made this travesty possible).
> The point is that by transitioning to a distributed biotech industry
> where small/medium business can innovate, we're going to upend this
> obsolete model. Imagine what can happen when biotech is a easy as
> making a web app. Carlson repeatedly makes the point that biotech is
> the cheapest technology known to man (if the economics were
> functioning properly) it is actually cheaper than computing.
Yes, I have to agree, it is potentially extremely cheap and pervasive,
because it already is. :-) How much does one bean cost? Pretty much nothing.
It's been said that one of the greatest sources of US American prosperity is
all the seeds, cuttings, and varieties of domesticated animals brought by
immigrants. And British prosperity was in part based on silkworms stolen
Anyway, I think there is a lot more potential with what we have than we have
even realized. Crazy economics have lead to monocultures in the USA, and
that is tragic.
> I actually think that the new era of biology is the low hanging fruit--
> if we properly account for the true costs. This is why those who have
> "done the math" are so excited.
> Please read Carlson's http://synthesis.cc/Biol_Tech_2050.pdf It
> does a better job than Dyson's piece on making the case for diy
Will do. I'm glancing at it now and I am not yet convinced it a convincing
case compared to, say, 3D printing, but I need to read it more.
> I'm no expert, and this is too important to leave to the experts
> (although you also seem to think it shouldn't be left to the
I can see the argument that it does not matter who does it (and amateurs may
do it better in some way, especially as open collaborators), but it should
be done as safely as possible (or maybe not at all by anyone).
> but I suspect you are overstating the likelihood of
> scenarios such as the tortured mutant animals/puppies--there is a
> point where the biological code just won't "compile" and I doubt that
> such a monstrosity would be born.
I just don't know. And a retort is that agriculture has always been cruel at
times and we accept it. Although there are vegetarians. I'm mostly one. :-)
> Finally, I think there is a strong psychological force at work here
> because people have such a visceral reaction to the idea of messing
> around with life.
Well, it's more the issue of creating disease (probably by accident, but
sometimes on purpose).
> The syn-bio debate really isn't being conducted at
> the level it ought to be (what else is new), with only ETC group
> sounding some alarms as things forge ahead. At Convergence they had a
> panel on this but the lone critic was pretty quickly labeled a Luddite
> (at least I think that is how most of the audience saw her). This
> obviously isn't fair, as even sophisticated technologists such as Bill
> Joy and yourself are very uncomfortable with the direction we are
> going. But I think something fascinating is going on nonetheless--
> people who are otherwise comfortable with technology seem to flip a
> switch when we get into these areas.
Well, I don't know how sophisticated either Bill Joy or I am, relatively
speaking. Or comparatively. :-) I assume you mean this:
"Why the future doesn't need us: Our most powerful 21st-century
technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech - are threatening
to make humans an endangered species."
"Each of us has our precious things, and as we care for them we locate the
essence of our humanity. In the end, it is because of our great capacity for
caring that I remain optimistic we will confront the dangerous issues now
I'm reminded of the Edenist/Adamist split in "The Reality Dysfunction" which
I'm almost embarrassed to admit I read all of (way too graphically violent
for my tastes, but I was hooked before I realized that.) From Wikipedia:
"A timeline in the appendix briskly covers the future history of the human
race, from the settling of the Moon and the opening up of space to
commercial exploitation to the founding of the Confederation. Essentially,
humanity has split into two strands, the Adamists and Edenists. The Edenists
possess the affinity gene, which allows telepathic communication between one
another and the construction and use of bio-technological (or 'bitek')
constructs, including sentient, living starships (voidhawks) and enormous
space habitats. The Edenists have a much greater standard of living than
their Adamist counterparts. The Adamists are 'classic' humans who employ
mechanical and cybernetic technology and use implants (including 'neural
nanonics', essentially computer systems built into the brain which allow
anything from enhanced memory and entertainment access to controlling
starships) to achieve their ends. The Adamists reject bitek for religious
and cultural reasons, but it is later revealed that certain individuals
working within Earth's government have discouraged the use of bitek for fear
of losing their ability to influence the development of mankind. Some
Adamists still use bitek, such as 'blackhawks', advanced living spacecraft
similar to Edenist voidhawks but with enhanced combat capabilities. ...
Despite their cultural, ideological and religious differences (Edenists are
virtually all atheists), the Edenists and Adamists generally work together
in a forum known as the Confederation, which seeks to regulate interstellar
trade, prevent war and repress the use and spread of antimatter, the most
feared weapon of mass destruction at the time of the novels. As of 2610
there are 862 planets and 12,370 independent asteroid settlements in the
What I see is the biggest problem with DIY-biotech is that you don't get as
much funding as you might want. :-) Seriously, that is what I think the
biggest problem is. :-) I don't necessarily think you would make bigger
mistakes than anyone else if you got all the time and materials (including
safer labs) that you could desire. The biggest problem, if people are going
to do this anyway, is that lack of resources will tempt you to cut corners,
including safety, but also education and discussion and patience.
And in that sense, I would prefer to delay such proliferation of DIY-biotech
until we are wealthy enough as a society to do it with all the resources it
But I can understand the frustration if you look at, say, a major university
with lots of funding to develop, say, "terminator" seeds, and saying, that
isn't right that they get all the good lab space and I can't do anything,
when I want to make something more positive for the world. Because it isn't
right -- those sorts of priorities are all messed up.
That said, I remain not too excited about biotech at home on the kitchen
table, unless it is heirloom tomatoes from the garden. :-)
I used to be a much bigger biotech fan until after I spent time around
people who did it in academia. :-)
> I had hoped the DIY movement would put a public face on biotech and
> that bringing this technology into the home would demystify it. If
> instead, the image is of irresponsible zealots, we have some serious
> problems that need redressing, fast!
Best of luck with that. Stacked up against meth labs, and maybe even
professors pushing for Nobel prizes, DIY-bio people might be (relatively :-)
the highest pinnacle of social responsibility in biotech. And operating in
public and sharing information would make you ethically superior to a lot of
ventures in a lot of ways.
Anyway, sorry to rain on anyone's parade. I do hope you can all find a way
to do positive stuff that you care about and make the world a more wonderful
Maybe a solid list of possible results that were desirable would be more
compelling. Though I'd wonder if there were alternatives. Also, having had
graduate training in both ecology and evolution, I marvel at how well
adapted so many things are. I am not convinced yet that human tinkering is
going to do a whole lot better, given fundamental issues facing any organism
like heat dissipation, mechanical properties, needing to resist parasites,
and so on. For example, I'm not sure we can get better than wood, which
already comes is various types from Balsa to Ironwood. :-) But I'll agree
that growing things in shapes would be neat -- although even in the Swiss
Family Robinson novels written hundreds of years ago they talk about doing
this with a gourd tree.
Something I wrote in 2000 which you can use against me: :-)
"[unrev-II] Singularity in twenty to forty years?"
Below are six "explosive" technology trends that all appear to
culminate in around twenty years. Even if some of them don't pan
out, the others will revolutionize our world (for good or bad).
I also list later four OHS/DKR projects related to coping with these
These are the technological trends that I think have a high chance of
coming to pass in twenty years (or so):
* Infotech -- Twenty years to $1000 human AI equivalent (1 billion MIPS)
* Robotech -- Twenty years to advanced macroscopic manipulators (human-
like, strong, mobile, low power) for $1000
Source: My general understanding of this field; this is similar to
what is explained in Hans Moravec's book "Robot"
* Powertech -- Twenty years to widespread fuel cells, PV, wind,
Source: My general reading in this area, like my previous post
on energy issues. For example of what might be around the
* Nanotech -- Twenty years to a first microscopic universal assembler
Source: Drexler, etc. http://www.foresight.org/
* Biotech -- Twenty years to mastery of many human DNA mysteries
Source: The human genome project is finishing soon and more
rapid advances are expected.
* Commtech -- Twenty years to ubiquitous cheap wireless communications
Source: This is already happening now with cell phones, but
needs time to percolate throughout the world.
Intersections may happen sooner: power chips, DNA computers, bio chips.
Of course, there is also what this colloquium is about -- Collabtech!
Collabtech arises from these other trends, although perhaps it is best
considered as a separate trend. I especially liked Ron Goldman's pointer
to the Chaordic Alliance http://www.chaordic.org/ founded by Dee Hock.
Collabtech such as developed and promoted by the Chaordic Alliance or
the Bootstrap Institute http://www.bootstrap.org may provide the most
hope for dealing with these other trends and the changes they bring.
I'd update this now a little, eight years later.
* Infotech to AI still seems maybe five years farther out than that, so
maybe 17 years from now, but not for hardware reasons, for software reasons.
* Robotech for general manipulators is maybe sooner, like with Willow
Garage, so maybe 7 years from now?
* Powertech is definitely sooner, now for wind power, maybe in 5 to 7 years
from now for PV, although "widespread" is still a little longer than that.
* Nanotech in that form I would put further out, or maybe never. I'm
starting to think that while we may soon have lots of nanomaterials (more
that we have now) and we may have nanotechish 3D printers, we may never have
workable self-directing nanites other than biotech-related ones.
* Biotech, still maybe roughly there in twelve years or a little longer (to
a mastery of *many* mysteries), but maybe longer till we can do much with
that, because what I mentioned there is just a beginning.
* Commtech, well that was way off, it's almost here now. :-)
Anyway, these are all just guesstimates. And I'm not putting as much thought
into this update as the original estimates.
* Collabtech really is way ahead of all this, thankfully. It's been hear a
while in quite useable forms. But it can still get better.
Anyway, so let's say you're right that biotech is happening in a big way now
or soon from DIY or others. That just moves up the timeframe for
transitioning to a post-scarcity society
where you would get all the resources you need to do this safely and without
pressure. :-) I still just can't see everyone doing this on their kitchen
table. I can see almost everyone someday trying it in a contained lab
accessed through the internet and teleoperation (face it, pipetting gets old
after a while anyway, why not just let the robots do it thousands of times
for you?), or maybe everyone who wants it might indeed have some contained
lab space down the road in a neighborhood tech center or even someday in
their garage for the safer sorts of experiments.
Of all these, I feel AI will be the most disruptive, because, as Marshal
Brain suggests in "Manna", it will put almost everyone out of work. But even
any of the others will probably destroy more jobs than they create in the
Now, because these predictions are completely at odds with our current
politics, economics, financial news, economic forecasts, international
agreements, debt obligations, and so on, something has got to give. :-)
Example of something giving unexpectedly:
"Something's Got to Give is one of the most notorious unfinished films in
Hollywood history. The light bedroom comedy was a remake of My Favorite Wife
(1940), a screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne and released
by RKO Radio Pictures. Filming on the remake started in 1962 by a
then-floundering 20th Century Fox, which paired Marilyn Monroe with Dean
Martin and Cyd Charisse. With a troubled star and belligerent director,
George Cukor, causing delays on a daily basis, the film quickly descended
into a costly debacle. The studio blamed Monroe: she was fired from the
role, and though she was afterwards reinstated, her death on August 5, 1962
came before filming could resume. The production was cancelled and its
footage shelved in the studio vaults, where it would remain unseen for many
The best laid plans of mice, directors, politicians, and technologists, gang
aft agley. :-)
Part of the poem that is paraphrased from:
"To A Mouse" By Robert Burns
But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!