Solitary citizens are toiling over test-tubes, sacrificing their time and money to create brand new lifeforms – but this isn’t a science fiction movie, it’s a hobby. “DIY Biochemistry” sees private citizens converting their dining rooms into DNA labs. It’s only a pity that Michael Crichton has passed on, because we’ve got the plot of his next book right here.
With a wealth of online guides, biochemical supply companies and even craigslist cryogenic equipment, hobbyists or collectives like the Cambridge group “DIYbio” are enabling determined individuals to engineer their own organisms. The self-titled “biohackers” paint a picture of “citizen scientists”, freeing genetic engineering from the stuffy confines of university and corporate labs. We would point out that anybody keen on freeing anything from a containment lab might not have a full understanding of what they’re doing.
The almost anti-scientist sentiment that “regular people should be able to do this without years of study” is fundamentally flawed – those years of study are what enable professionals to know what they’re at. These people demand “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do this in our own homes?”, and if you have to even ask that question you truly don’t know the answer.
We don’t doubt that many useful results will come out of the DIY DNA diversion, and anything which increases the public’s knowledge of this crucial branch of science has a good side. The sheer spectrum of ideas that can come from hobbyists has been proved time and again by the internet, and harnessed safely by such mass-simulations as FoldIt. Also unquestionable is that the vast majority of these projects will be only beneficial, at worst failures which achieve nothing, and any imagined terrorist threats are vastly overstated.
But it only takes one. A single amateur ecology-alterer managed to devastate Australia with a bag of rabbits back in the day, and he didn’t even have a biochem lab. Caution is advised.
Proponents proudly point out how Apple and Google were started by similarly small-scale entrepreneurs. The problem, of course, is that the first Apple computer couldn’t replicate uncontrollably and dominate the entire globe. Likewise Google – well, okay, that did happen with Google but it seems to have worked out. But we won’t have the same guarantee with gengineered bacteria.
Posted by Luke McKinney