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Biotech Medicine Build Science

The Grassroots Future of Biohacking 68

An anonymous reader writes Forget about some kid engineering a virulent microbe in their bedroom. As the assistant director of the Maurice Kanbar Center for Biomedical Engineering, Oliver Medvedik, puts it, "It's extremely difficult to 'improve' on the lethality of nature. The pathogens that already exist are more legitimate cause for worry.” If anything, you're better off putting energy into wrenching away your desire for McDonalds, and making sure the government doesn't impose draconian laws about DIY-bio. Here's a look at the grassroots future of biohacking and the problems with government overreach.
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The Grassroots Future of Biohacking

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  • Freeman Dyson (Score:5, Informative)

    by NoImNotNineVolt ( 832851 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @02:48PM (#47874293) Homepage
    I attended a talk given by Freeman Dyson roughly a decade ago. His opinion on the future of technology was clear: grassroots biohacking (I doubt that he called it that verbatim, but the concept was the same) would be the next Wild West of technology. Increasingly accessible tools would open up the world of genetic engineering to an entire generation just like the desktop computer opened up software development to curious kids. His opinion, if I remember correctly, was that the "government overreach" thing was a non-issue because of the inevitable ubiquity of such tools (much like "government overreach" limiting the availability of software development tools today seems impossible).
    • Except, of course, that genetic engineering isn't that big a deal to those already born.

      Unless you also have the tools to spread your clever genetic change to all of the several billion cells in your body at once, that is. We can use the insights of genetics to help poke and prod our body's behavior, but you can't just "hack" your genome and be done with it.

      You might have pie-in-the-sky claims about gene therapy using retroviruses to supply the change, but unless you want those viruses to make you sick and

      • This movement is trying to break ground on both parts: understanding and altering genes, and distributing those changes throughout a system. Its really not that infeasible.
        • Sure, all it needs is one major revolution and the objections I'm raising cease to be relevant. But there are more. Like most genes' positive observable effects occur during development and childhood. And hacking humans isn't like hacking code. There's huge ethical risks. And careful applications of science have been our best tool for identifying the health benefits and risks of changes.

          And quacks making extraordinary claims will crop up, as they always do, if popular opinion reflects positively on gen

      • Yes yes, but what about our bacteriome? Surely that is waay easier to genetically modify and have those modifications spread quickly throughout your body...

        And if anything goes wrong, some antibiotics should help to clear up your mistake...hopefully.
        • Of course, there will be applications. Let no one call me a Luddite who doesn't see the value in genetic engineering. I'm just instantly incredulous of claims that "regular people will do this in their backyard" as a degree of revolution.

      • Who said I have to use my body to multiply them?

        On a completely unrelated note, I have here a new breath mint you just HAVE to try...

      • Unless you also have the tools to spread your clever genetic change to all of the several billion cells in your body at once, that is.

        Why "at once"? Your body normally REMAKES most of the cells in your body every 16 years. Some parts faster than others. Some parts stick with you till you die.
        Patience.

    • Re:Freeman Dyson (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mlts ( 1038732 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @03:03PM (#47874441)

      Problem is that it can be stomped out in the US and Europe with some quick fearmongering. "Home bio-terror labs" is a phrase some politician would throw around, that would get laws passed banning biohacking almost immediately.

      Of course, this this type of thing can be very useful. For example, the article about bacteria being able to make propane. If someone was able to make bacteria that could, given sunlight, split water, it would spark a hydrogen economy revolution. Similar with critters that could filter heavy metals out of water, where said critters could be easily picked up and disposed of.

      Of course, the fearmongering isn't all conjecture. Someone in theory could make a bug that could eat a vital building material or resins crucial to electronics could make a civilization failure similar to what was described in the Ringworld series with their room temperature superconductors.

      • It must've been around 2007, since googling for 'freeman dyson genetics' brings me to these [nybooks.com] articles [salon.com].

        Anyway, his argument might best be summed up with his own words:
        "I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized."
      • Look up Microbial Fuel cell... which normally generates power.
        Now put in 0.2v. the little buggers make hydrogen.
        Now use algae in one fuel cell to generate the 0.2v for another fuel cell.

        You're welcome.

      • Fear mongering is almost never all conjecture, but that does not make it something other than fear mongering. The reality is that fear mongering has been a known control tactic for centuries.

        It's one thing to have a rational discussion about potential issues, it's quite another to use intentional rhetoric to make problems exist that don't, or make very minor (extremely rare) problems that do exist seem much worse than they are.

        The problem with your statement about stamping out a current "threat" is that it

      • If someone was able to make bacteria that could, given sunlight, split water, it would spark a hydrogen economy revolution.

        We already have bacteria which can, given any organic matter, split it into butanol (a 1:1 replacement for gasoline) as well as acetone (an industrial solvent, which burns clean and can be used to alter the octane ratio of the gasoline replacement) and ethanol ('nuff said.) Practical commercial exploitation was worked out at a public university and therefore partially with public funds, but the patents are owned by Butamax, a shell company owned by GE and DuPont. They have sued Gevo [wikipedia.org] to actually prevent them

        • by Anonymous Coward

          This is like the everlasting lightbulb, right? Or Tesla's magical free electricity? Marvellous miraculous products that are being suppressed to preserve vested interests.

          Except, being able to create sellable fuel from nothing is a killer business. Nobody would say "let's NOT take over the world's fuel production and make trillions of dollars from our patent; let's instead sit on it, and buy all our fuel from elsewhere". So logic tells us that there must be something wrong with the product that means it

          • Except, being able to create sellable fuel from nothing is a killer business. Nobody would say "let's NOT take over the world's fuel production and make trillions of dollars from our patent; let's instead sit on it, and buy all our fuel from elsewhere". So logic tells us that there must be something wrong with the product that means it fundamentally doesn't make a profit versus digging oil up.

            Okay, smart guy, tell us what the problem is. Gevo doesn't see a problem.

  • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @03:13PM (#47874523) Homepage

    The statement "it’s extremely difficult to ‘improve’ on the lethality of nature" dodges the fact that one does not need to 'improve' it, one needs only 'combine' existing forms of lethality:

    http://science.slashdot.org/st... [slashdot.org]

    A scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published an article in June revealing that he had taken genes from the deadly human 1918 Spanish Flu and inserted them into the H5N1 avian flu to make a new virus—one which was both far deadlier and far more capable of spreading

    Overall, this article really is quite inspiring. I'm glad to know that creating deadly viruses is not yet available on the average home lab. It makes it sounds like home-hackers can make some really cool bacteria. It's like we are working toward a bio-arduino.

    • do you want Lasers with that?
    • by erice ( 13380 )

      The statement "it’s extremely difficult to ‘improve’ on the lethality of nature" dodges the fact that one does not need to 'improve' it, one needs only 'combine' existing forms of lethality:

      You don't even have to combine different forms of lethality, just combine lethality with ease of propagation. Airborne ebola, anyone?

    • I'd imagine it's not all that hard to improve on the lethality of nature. Just infect a large number of people with the relevant virus and extract the strain from the person it affects/kills the most etc, no different to breeding dogs for certain traits. Even the lowest tech terrorist could manage it with a large enough test population, although not being an expert I could be mistaken here.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      How about putting the gene to make botox into e. coli or staph?
      Over all bio-hacking seems to be right up with nuclear power, something best left to well trained individuals.

  • "It's extremely difficult to 'improve' on the lethality of nature.

    So the cross between ebola and the common cold [wordpress.com], which was a terrible, terrible thing, wasn't an improvement on lethality?
  • by chihowa ( 366380 ) * on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @03:24PM (#47874625)

    I'm a chemist, but I've had the opportunity to work with some of this to make customized proteins and cells to work with. It really is getting surprisingly easy and inexpensive to play around with this stuff and the range of what you can make is huge.

    That said, I really see this going the same way as amateur chemistry and rocketry (and soon drones and 3D printing). The mere fact that it's possible to do something dangerous or disallowed means that the entire field is off-limits to amateurs. Any interest in it will be suspicious and used against you in your imminent trial, even if it's not technically illegal.

    • On the flip-side, the early adopters will make bank in a similar way to those who really embraced personal computing back in the 80's, or the internet in the 90's. Even if the law comes down or the market cornered by big business, you'll have a valuable in-demand skillset. Or you'll be the inventor the next big thing. Let's see: bio-OS, YouGene, NANthrax, fat'be'gone, OracleOcculars, hmmmm....

      And that's the sort of statement made with an intent to kickstart another gold-rush into new exciting territory wher

  • WMD's, everybody needs them. Bio-weapons from hacking? Why not....

    I have no doubt that BIO hacking is a great pastime, but seriously, there really needs to be some oversight on this, draconian or not. I'm not going to sit here and say it's easy to weaponize this kind of thing, but if some yahoo are growing anthrax on the back porch it might be a good idea to have somebody keeping track of it. Virus production is even worse. Anything that could cause trouble for humans, the food supply, or the environmen

    • I am getting very skeptical about the home-made bioweapon that ends the world.

      It isn't unreasonable to think that some lone idiot could make a new version of smallpox or bubonic plague or bird flu that goes the distance. My question is how in heck would they test it? DNA is like the worst imaginable spaghetti code, so it isn't like you just flip this one sequence here and your ordinary flu bug is 99 percent fatal. And if you combine in other stuff you have no real idea what unintended side effects might

      • I am getting very skeptical about the home-made bioweapon that ends the world.

        It isn't unreasonable to think that some lone idiot could make a new version of smallpox or bubonic plague or bird flu that goes the distance. My question is how in heck would they test it?

        Does it matter? The problem here is that some yahoo *could* get a sample of small pox, or plague, and start such a problem. Small Pox might be officially eradicated, but I can think of possible ways to collect samples outside of official channels and you could kill millions in the third world if you let that loose.

        But, I'm more concerned about stuff that might not be lethal to humans, but say kills chickens or cattle. There is a virus that is killing pigs "in the wild" right now that is causing hog farm

      • You seem to be afraid of people who will deliberately create bioweapons in their garage, which is going to be really difficult. I'm afraid of people who will play around with stuff, accidentally create something really nasty, and accidentally let it out. It really doesn't matter to me, while I'm coughing my lungs out and bleeding out of most orifices, whether it was deliberately designed as a weapon or hacked together because it looked neat, or whether the originator inoculated himself before cleverly es

  • Point 1 and 2 on my list would be UV and IR vision
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday September 10, 2014 @03:48PM (#47874813)

    There are of course natural entities that are lethal, but they are lethal as a by-product. No parasite, no virus, has the death of its host as its primary goal. Usually, the host dies from the unpleasant side effects of the parasite's primary goal: self preservation and propagation.

    If you turn those objectives upside down (i.e. primary goal: Maximum damage, secondary goal: sustain existence) you sure as hell can increase the potential for lethal effects!

  • I could imagine a situation where a company obtains genetic samples from a given geographic area to determine regional likes and dislikes, says Medvedik. That would be a very powerful marketing tool.

    not necessary. 1.28 billion people voluntaily and questionlessly provide deeply personal detauls about their opinions and beliefs every single minute. its called Facebook, and its helping to destroy privacy on a very fundamental level.
    what genetic data is being used by corporations to do is hock tests for a wide range of precursors and indicators of ailments and maladies, many of which are controvesial or flat out inconclusive. this instills fear in the customer and in turn more drive to purchase additi

  • Such a lack of imagination is rarely seen. Remember: "Nobody will ever need more than 640KB of memory" by Bill Gates?

  • I'm doing a biohacking-ish workshop next week, as it happens. The Synbiota [synbiota.com] people are taking care of all the bureaucracy so that I can play with DNA. It's part of a bigger experiment, so it's not like I'm going full-mad-scientist, but it's a fun way for an IT guy with an interest in biology like me to do some experiments.
  • Wait...I thought scientists had "given up"
    http://science.slashdot.org/st... [slashdot.org]

  • There are more dangers from random people "biohacking" in their basements than creating things that are directly lethal. For example: terminator seeds that interbreed with other species we depend on. Or disrupting the extremely fine balance of ecosystems -- like something that affects bees or other pollinators. I think it should be well regulated.

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