Imagine that you are a food producer. Let’s say you own a company that produces yogurt. During the production phase something odd happensall the yogurt your company produced turns a fluorescent green. You’re alarmed, but not because of the fluorescent green yogurt. You’re alarmed because you know the yogurt is contaminated with the toxic chemical melamine, which was found in baby milk in both China and the U. S. last year.
The Guardian’s James Bloom claims in “The geneticist in the garage”, that this fluorescent green yogurt concept is currently an experiment under development in the dining room of a San Francisco apartment.
On a budget of less than $500, using a plastic salad spinner as a centrifuge, and sandwich bags as sample containers, genetic scientist Meredith Patterson is hoping to provide a breakthrough in food safety. If she is successful she’ll release the results of her project into the public domain.
“I haven’t had a huge amount of success so far,” says Patterson. “But science is often about failing until you get it right”
Scores of biohackers “”a phrase used to describe doing to living organisms what computer hackers have long done with electronics”” are setting up DIY biotechnology gene laboratories to invent new organisms in the same guerilla fashion as Bill Gates did with software.
“The movement is getting much of its steam from synthetic biology,”writes Carolyn Y. Johnson with the Globe, “a field of science that seeks to make working with cells and genes more like building circuits by creating standardized biological parts. The dream, already playing out in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT, is that biology novices could browse a catalog of ready-made biological parts and use them to create customized organisms. Technological advances have made it quite simple to insert genes into bacteria to give them the ability to, for example, detect arsenic or produce vitamins”
“Nowadays,”says a team member of a company trying to “realize”DIY biotechnology, “biotechnology is like a medieval guild. Firstly, you have to get a PhD, but if you want to practice you then need venture capital, otherwise you don’t have the tools. This will take power away from patent owners like Monsanto and pave the way for more people to have a positive impact,” she says.
This is indeed revolutionary. A radical group of citizen scientists are biohacking the life sciences with the intent on sharing their discoveries for the good of the communitythis is likened to sharing code and allowing the distribution of open source software.
“De Mora was part of a team that developed an arsenic detector for contaminated water in Bangladesh,”writes Bloom. “E. coli bacteria were modified using BioBrick components to produce a warning signal in the presence of arsenic. If their working prototype is developed into a commercial product, it will be much cheaper than existing technologies”
“The real potential of biotechnology will explode in the UK after people are given access at home,” predicts De Mora.
But some are ambivalent about amateur biohackers and the decentralization of institutional research. “I have mixed feelings about regulation,”writes, Peggy at Science Fiction Biology blog. “While I’d prefer my next-door-neighbor not be developing potentially virulent new strains of E. coli, the regulation of at-home labs here in the US has been, IMHO, rather excessive. A case in point is that of artist Steven Kurtz, who was arrested in 2004 by the FBI as a possible bioterrorist because he was preparing an art installation in his home that involved nonpathogenic bacteria. He was finally cleared of charges in April of this year”
The concern over regulation aside [as if any is really protected from all this so-called regulation], there’s no doubt biohackers and biotechnology are here to stay. I see Biohacking as a social movement encompassing the spirit of Wiki and Creative Commonsconcrete illustrations of the democratization of creativity.
“For us, it’s a continuum,” said Reshma Shetty, one of Ginko Bioworks’s founders, a synthetic biology company. “We can make it easier for newcomers and professors, and make it so people can start biotech companies in their basement, just like they can build a Web 2.0 company in their basement.”
- Genetically Modified Food Experiments Use Kids for Guinea Pigs (ecochildsplay.com)
- Experts debate GM food issue, and still nothing (geneticsandhealth.com)
- Of Course Cows Want To Be Vegetables! (takepart.com)
- Sarah’s Social Action Snapshot: We’re All Creators (takepart.com)