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.)


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 $(removed) 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

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