Biopunk: the "great and terrible power" of indie biotech?

Marcus Wohlsen has covered startup culture, the maker scene, and the marijuana industry as a reporter in the San Francisco bureau of The Associated Press. His first book, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, was published this week by Current. I asked him to contribute a few pieces about the biotech underground to run on Boing Boing. Here's the second one. (Read the first one.)
biopunk.jpg SAFETY/RISK: The "great and terrible power" of indie biotech?

Anxiety about scientists "playing god" crops up in two main contexts: apocalypse and genesis. Robert Oppenheimer famously sensed this when he recalled the Bhagavad Gita upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb: "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." At the dawn of the genetic engineering era in the 1970s, some saw the end of the world in manipulating life's origin.

"Biologists have become, without wanting it, the custodians of great and terrible power," Caltech biology chairman Robert Sinsheimer is quoted as saying in a 1977 Time magazine article headlined "Doomsday: Tinkering with Life." "It is idle to pretend otherwise."

Though the U.S. landscape now teems with genetically engineered crops and genetically engineered cancer drugs extend life and reap billions in revenue, this country's anxiety about playing with DNA persists. Though gene-splicing as a practice is nearly 40 years old, as a culture we still fear creating Frankenstein's monster.

Complex new dimensions on that fear open up when the biohacker claim is put forward that not only professional scientists but also amateur hobbyists could and should tinker with DNA. Under this scenario, tinkering takes on a connotation beyond generic "modifying." In a subculture where amateurs get to tweak genes, genetic engineering enters the realm of old-fashioned American garage ingenuity. Which is exactly where biohackers want it. The tinkerer's workshop, from Benjamin Franklin to the Homebrew Computer Club, is where American innovation happens.

Yet the response so far shows that Franklin's kite is not the first thing that comes to the minds of many when confronted with the prospect of DIY biotech.

"The new danger next door?" was how the San Francisco Chronicle teased its 2009 feature on the Bay Area's do-it-yourself biology scene.

"What's available to idealistic students, of course, would also be available to terrorists," Michael Specter wrote in a (generally approving) 2009 New Yorker piece about the rise of synthetic biology.

"The ability to create nasty pathogens like your hybrid rabies virus in your bathroom is becoming easier and easier," an unnamed federal official says in a 2009 Homeland Security Today article. "In the opinion of many in my field, this is much easier than trying to get enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb and then being able to construct an effective bomb."

Of course, you can't just pigeonhole these worries as cultural queasiness. Concern about bioterror and bio-error make sense if biopunks ever get good enough to pull off the epic hacks that stoke their dreams. Most of those dreams, and the fears they stir, hinge on the possibility that someday soon, anyone with a laptop could boot up Autodesk and prototype a new living cell, DNA letter by DNA letter. If that happens, what's to stop a malicious coder from creating the biological version of Stuxnet, or a clumsy coder from brewing up the microbial equivalent of the Gulf oil spill?

Lots, according to scientists doing this work.

The rise of biohacking as an idea and a practice has coincided with the emergence of synthetic biology, itself still a bit of a black-sheep discipline in the life sciences. Usually described as the attempt to build life "from scratch," synthetic biology so far has been more of an effort to standardize and codify genetic engineering like other engineering disciplines. Synthetic biologists describe DNA in terms of "circuits" and "parts." And they try to get cells to do things, such as produce fuels or blink on and off like LEDs, that living things don't ordinarily do.

In testimony before Congress, Stanford bioengineering professor Drew Endy tried to draw a clear line between the perceived threat of synthetic biology and the facts in his lab. Endy is one of synthetic biology's most outspoken advocates and one of its most sophisticated practitioners. He told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that his lab's "holy grail" was to create a DNA-based eight-bit information storage system.

One difference between his system and a USB flash drive, he said, was that his would be made of organic matter and function inside living cells. The other: "Our system will only store eight bits, which is eight billion times less than what you could store on an electronic memory stick available today from Wal-Mart for twenty dollars. ... Using the best tools available it has taken us over one year to get the molecular pieces that comprise our first bit working."

Even if synthetic biologists do manage to boot up new cells never before seen in nature, evolution does not guarantee these boutique microorganisms safe passage from Petri dish to the wide world. Natural selection has given cold and flu viruses, for example, a massive head start to find a durable niche compared to anything we might create. These germs have proven more fit than anything we humans have thrown at them so far. Will we really outwit eons of evolution with our first fragile steps into the synthetic biology sandbox? In biotech, accidents tend to mean dead experiments, not outbreaks.

As for deliberate evil, someone would have to love the science more than mayhem if he or she sought to use synthetic biology as a terror tool. If they were set on bioterror, they'd probably have a much simpler time brewing botulinum from black-market Botox or ricin from castor beans. Or stealing weaponized anthrax from an Army research lab. The scary potential of synthetic biology in the hands of biohackers or professionals has hardly been realized. Given the spaghetti code that comprises most genetic systems, it's arguable whether the proof of principle for pestilence has even been met.

(The federal government has recommended a hands-off standard of "prudent vigilance" for monitoring developments in synthetic biology.)

Jim Thomas disagrees with the government's stance, and with the blithe assessment of evolution's ability to wipe out lab-built life. As a researcher for the technology watchdog ETC Group, Thomas may know more about the science and practice of synthetic biology than anyone else who considers it a scourge. He considers synthetic organisms inherently invasive species that could have a kudzu-like effect on whatever environment they enter. As he pointed out in testimony before an Obama administration bioethics panel last year, oil spills eventually get cleaned up. Invasive species stay.

Yet Thomas' anxiety is at least as much political as it is primal. For him, the question of who controls biotechnology matters even more than concern about biotechnology out of control.

"It's the bioeconomy, stupid," Thomas told the President's panel. "That's what matters."

Thomas sees Craig Venter's $600 million deal with Exxon for biofuel research as the true face of synthetic biology. In this concern over corporatization, he has found unlikely common cause with biohackers. For both, anxiety about scientists doesn't come down so much to issues of beginnings and ends. Each is more worried, though in different ways and for different reasons, about who gets to play god with the world's daily bread. Monday: Making/History

Buy Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life on Amazon


  1. We’d better leave the genetic engineering to the good, honest, upstanding folks at Monsanto, just to be on the safe side. You just can’t tell what kind of scary stuff those ‘hacker’ weirdos might brew up…

  2. Playing with well understood and easily manipulated electronic components is one thing, claiming that people can just as easiliy manipulate poorly understood molecules is quite another. If you want to test a circuit you can do it almost instantly, building a gowing microorganism and observing it is quite another.

    Even the best scientists still barely understand what the vast majority of the DNA code does and even what they do know they don’t know all the ramifications of it. So to make it sound like some schlub in his basement is going to be cranking out homemade bacteria any time soon is idiotic.

    “bioeconomy”? Ugh. No, it is just “economy”. As bad as putting “cyber” in front of everything was a few years back.

  3. A genetic-engineering “whoopsie” *will* happen. It’s a given. It might come from Monsanto. It might come from a high-school student (with or without malicious intent). Either way, it’s going to happen.

    There’s also no way to prevent it. The technology will continue (too much money and scientific thrill in it for it to do otherwise). More people/organizations will get involved. The potential for the creation of a serious hazard will just continue to grow.

    Given all that, we should be spending time and money on developing our response to that hazard when (not if) it crops up. Get the necessary labs, communication systems and, most importantly research and techology in place beforehand.

    If you know that your town will be building a lot of wooden buildings, it makes sense to invest in your fire department, yes?

  4. Interesting, but kind of a sideshow. Synthetic organisms are not that much of a threat, at least not without another few decades of development. But I doubt many garage hackers are trying to “…boot up Autodesk and prototype a new living cell, DNA letter by DNA letter.” Unless that is the goal in itself, what would be the point? Millions of bacteria and viruses are available to everyone every day. Read up on adenovirus and what you can do with it (I have worked with it – it’s not trivial but it’s not *that* difficult). I am too lazy to look up the size of the rabies virus genome, but what could you come up with by mixing and matching genes from the two of them? Maybe nothing, but how many combinations are there?

    This is not to say we should stamp out biohacking, but we do need to have a rational discussion of the danger areas, and how we can avoid or prepare for them – maybe biohackers will even be the ones who recognize the threats and prepare the defences.

    So synthetic biology, sure, interesting, lots of potential down the road, but a bit of a distraction if we are trying to have that discussion about the potential and dangers of biohacking.

  5. One of the greatest books I have read about the non-existence of bioterrorism and it’s identity as a mere spectacle for funding agencies and scaring the public is The Marching Plague, by Critical Art Ensemble. You might remember Steve Kurtz from CAE, who was figured on this blog after his kafkaesque arrest by the FBI on bioterrorism charges.

    Their books are (or used to be) freely available on their website, The Molecular Invasion is also very good, though a bit dated.

  6. The “bioterrorism” and “bioerror” cards are overplayed in this debate, to be honest. While it’s possible-to-probable that someone will attempt to make a superpathogen, consider for a moment that trillions of such efforts occur every day, and we get a yearly plague from one of the best-adapted viruses out there, the Flu.

    Not only that, but if you can imagine something awful in the biowarfare category of possibilities, it’s probably been done. America at least, and probably all the other huge superpowers, has a huge budget for biowarfare “research”, ostensibly no doubt for the preparation of countermeasures. I have little doubt that hidden away in DARPA-funded labs are scores of viruses and bacteria that could give the WHO nightmares.

    In the end, it all comes down to ease, though. It’s relatively easy to make a bacterium that makes antibiotics out of waste plant material, which could save lives. It’s relatively hard to make something that could evade one of nature’s best countermeasures; the adaptive immune system.

    The former requires some googling to learn about biosynthesis and some in-silico DNA hacking, followed by the wet-work of getting the genes to run in a target cell.

    The latter probably requires a whole college degree in itself to understand immune systems, followed by finding a chink-in-the-armour that Nature hasn’t already exploited to its full potential. And seeing as everyone’s immune system is different, you’ll never really be able to cook something up that you can guarantee will work outside your nefarious experiment as it appears to work in vitro.

    So yea, someone will make bioweapons that possibly approach nature’s pre-existing solutions. But if you’re really concerned about bioweapons, contact your democratic representatives and start lobbying for the destruction of bioweapons reserves in your country, because you’ll achieve a lot more than by accusing garage biologists of creating “I am Legend IRL”.

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