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Biotech Open Source Science

The Economist Calls For "Open Source" Biology 80

Posted by Soulskill
from the preparing-for-plague-2.0 dept.
Socguy writes "With the announcement earlier this week that a team of researchers has created the first artificial life, The Economist has been pondering the implications of what this brave new frontier means when the power to build living organisms filters through to anyone with a laptop. Traditional methods of restricting and regulating dangerous technology have more or less worked so far, but The Economist thinks that this time may be different. They are calling for an open system where the 'good guys' can see and counter any dangerous organisms that are released, accidentally or otherwise."
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The Economist Calls For "Open Source" Biology

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  • great idea, how about open source economics too.
    • by rubycodez (864176) on Saturday May 22, 2010 @11:44AM (#32305882)

      the international banking cartel, of which our Federal Reserve is a local branch office, will never allow it. That's why we can't pass a bill to audit the Fed.

      • by maxume (22995)

        So is Bernanke merely a figurehead, or is the cabal-that-rules-the-world fond of academic descendants of middle-class (vaguely) Ukrainian Jews?

        • by rubycodez (864176)

          bah, other mega-corporations with lawmakers in their pockets also rule the world, and as for religions of executives in the banking cartel in western civilization, there are muslims, christians, atheists as well as jewish people.

          • by maxume (22995)

            If it allows the largely anonymous son of a pharmacist to rise to the most powerful position in the world, it isn't much of a cartel.

            • If it allows the largely anonymous son of a pharmacist to rise to the most powerful position in the world, it isn't much of a cartel.

              Why not? I can't see the connection.

              • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

                by maxume (22995)

                Because the whole idea of a cartel is control. 6 or 8 years ago, Bernanke didn't have any power, now he is probably the most powerful banker on the planet. Handing power over to some guy isn't a great way to maintain control.

                • Because the whole idea of a cartel is control. 6 or 8 years ago, Bernanke didn't have any power, now he is probably the most powerful banker on the planet. Handing power over to some guy isn't a great way to maintain control.

                  Typically a cartel is about profit (though I'm not sure that universally has to be true). There's no reason a cartel can't be as meritocratic (or autocratic etc.) as any other form of organisation. If you can imagine other forms of profit-driven (or if you really feel it has to be then control-driven) enterprise that would decide that "some guy" is competent enough to help them achieve their aims then the same goes for a cartel. I think it's pretty clear that ignoring whether someone is the son of a pharmac

                • vHanding power over to some guy isn't a great way to maintain control.

                  They know where he lives.

            • by rubycodez (864176)

              his is not the most powerful position in the world, he is manager of a local branch office

      • Muhahahaaa! That’s the beautiful thing with my system: There is no need for a bill. There is no “allowing”. There is no choice. And there is no going back.
        It spreads (the goodness) like a virus. A virus that can not be stopped.

  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday May 22, 2010 @11:29AM (#32305796) Homepage
    And makes too much out of 'synthetic biology'. For every nasty, dangerous issue that purely synthetic biology is faced with, the same issues occur with our current technology. Want to weaponize an E. coli - you could do that with current recombinant techniques. Creating the sequence de novo won't necessarily make the problem more dangerous - or even easier.

    TFA worries about some time in the future when some psychotic teenager with a laptop and a DNA synthesizer can dream up some evil little critter and theorizes that 'open sourcing' of all DNA sequences would make dealing with this scenario easier. I don't see that. Even if Kim Jun Il's minions manage to do create a Micheal Crichton class bug having the 'code' would not make stabilizing the problem a whole lot easier. Especially if you could grow the bug and then sequence the thing. (Sequencing is and likely will be much easier than synthesis).

    Besides ol' Kim isn't likely to upload his code to the repository, is he?
    • by Reziac (43301) *

      Thst was my thought too. You don't see much malware code on Sourceforge, do you?? Why on earth would someone opensource their biological weapon??

      While the concept is good from a research POV, it's hardly going to save us from a nutcase armed with a hacked copy of Recombinant DNA For Dummies.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by RDW (41497)

      'And makes too much out of 'synthetic biology'. For every nasty, dangerous issue that purely synthetic biology is faced with, the same issues occur with our current technology. Want to weaponize an E. coli - you could do that with current recombinant techniques. Creating the sequence de novo won't necessarily make the problem more dangerous - or even easier.'

      Which is pretty much the most insightful comment in this thread. We've been manipulating bacteria and viruses for decades. Arbitrary genes encoding any

    • I just read "Oryx and Crake", you insensitive pigoon!

  • Good vs. Evil (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DaMattster (977781) on Saturday May 22, 2010 @11:30AM (#32305806)
    Open source, in of itself, is somewhat agnostic to these quintessentially biblical terms. Open source is neither good nor evil, it just exists in a neutral state and it is up to the mind of the user whether it will be used for beneficial purposes or harmful purposes. Early FUD spreaders tried to capitalize on the fact that something open source would be less secure because source code could be examined for flaws and exploited by those wishing to do harm. The counter argument goes that security weaknesses are inherrent because software is a human innovation and thus error-prone and source code availability can lead to faster patching of flawed code because more people are examining it. The same can be said for biology - there are always people that will try to engineer a harmful life form based on what is out there but the more knowledge there is in the public space, the faster the harm can be subverted.
    • by Chalex (71702)

      "open source" (but you probably mean Free Software) is about making tools available. So a knife may be an apt analogy, a very useful tool that could be easily used for good or evil.

  • by Bugamn (1769722) on Saturday May 22, 2010 @11:30AM (#32305808) Journal
    People have already installed Linux on badgers [strangehorizons.com].
  • by b4upoo (166390) on Saturday May 22, 2010 @11:39AM (#32305864)

    For many years students with education in biology really could have let some horrors lose upon the world. Thankfully those who know how tend to be stable enough not to want to pursue such negative goals. After all, it takes a certain sum of stability and direction to reach upwards in the universities. These folks tend not to want to do harm.
                  With synthetic life possible little has changed yet. Obviously this area can yield wonderful products to support and cure the ills of mankind.
                  As to regulation of the technology that will never be available in any substantial way. The cost of watching all of the peoples' efforts to create new and different things has nothing to support it unless national economies are very, very robust. Worse yet, science that is not done here will be done elsewhere. A bright student in Ethiopia is as likely to let the genie out of the bottle than a goofy student in California. So just where would the money come from to watch the people all over the world and study their work deeply enough to predict real hazards?

    • by e9th (652576)

      Thankfully those who know how tend to be stable enough not to want to pursue such negative goals.

      All it takes is one. [scienceblogs.com]

  • I've long thought that THIS is how intelligent life destroys itself. Basically, technology increases until the power to destroy all life can be used by a single insane individual.

    Consider this. Let's say we have biology down to the level where a very intelligent person can design a lifeform using algorithmic programs. This person decides to destroy all human life, because they hate mankind (picture some enviro-nut). So he designs a pathogen that spreads through the air, and hides in the body. He wants it to

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by selven (1556643)

      I say spread out into space. If we only have a few thousand people per rock (think rings of Jupiter and Saturn), a terrorist can only wipe out a few thousand people. Spreading anything throughout the entire solar system is impractical - most of it will fall into the sun/a gas giant and the rest will break up on collision at over a kilometer per second. Delivery mechanisms like missiles can be detected and shot down with lasers (that takes care of thermonuclear war destroying everything as well).

      • That's not going to work, unless the space colony gets no visitors in that 20 year fuse time. And even if they didn't, it's highly likely they will still be dependent on the Earth for some sort of critical supplies. A dead Earth probably means a dead colony.
      • by lennier (44736)

        I say spread out into space. If we only have a few thousand people per rock (think rings of Jupiter and Saturn), a terrorist can only wipe out a few thousand people. Spreading anything throughout the entire solar system is impractical - most of it will fall into the sun/a gas giant and the rest will break up on collision at over a kilometer per second. Delivery mechanisms like missiles can be detected and shot down with lasers (that takes care of thermonuclear war destroying everything as well).

        But what about the much cheaper approach of biological weapons? Or even just trade embargoes?

        Unless it's led by fanatic isolationists, human presence in space is always going to be part of a strongly linked web of travel and trade, and any social, biological or economic disaster is likely to spread to all of them just like wars and plagues have always spread throughout Earth empires.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by maxume (22995)

      Let's say your nefarious person invents a machine that turns 1/2 of the earth into antimatter. What would we do then?

      Yes, I'm saying your magic bug is magic, it doesn't just get to hide in the body for 20 years, it has to hide in the body for 20 years while avoiding the host immune system and competing for resources with other stuff living on the body, and then it has to be 100% effective.

      • Except there are numerous examples of bugs that lie dormant in humans before triggering. That's why they are able to spread. It's an evolutionary success mechanism.
        • by maxume (22995)

          Name the one that is closest to staying non-virulent for 20 years and then being lethal.

          • The obvious example is AIDS. But you're missing the point. The point isn't that that there exists a natural pathogen with these attributes, the point is whether it's possible to *engineer* a pathogen, and I don't see any reason that once we have genetic engineering down to a computer-like language that we can't do it.
            • by maxume (22995)

              The reason is that our bodies are incredibly hostile environments for pathogens.

              You cite HIV as the 'obvious' example, yet one of the reasons it is so hard to deal with medically is that it mutates at a very high rate, so it would be very difficult to tie it together with a clockwork timebomb. Influenza has also proved difficult to treat, and it mutates so fast that ~80% of each generation is unable to infect the host that it was made in.

              • by Derf the (610150)

                ... Influenza has also proved difficult to treat, and it mutates so fast that ~80% of each generation is unable to infect the host that it was made in.

                Thankyou maxume

                I had never figured out why the 1918 flu went away, why didn't it keep coming back year after year wiping out millions; so simple once you know!
                It mutated itself out of existence, and then it was gone!
                One more piece in my model of "Life the Universe & everything" slotted nicely into place.

                • by maxume (22995)

                  I'm just reading "The Great Influenza" by John M. Barry. About 1/3 of the way through, a great read so far.

                  I went back and checked, to make sure I wasn't misleading you terribly, it turns out that the figure given in the book is that 99% of the viruses are not viable, not 80% (but 100,000 to 1 million individual viruses are released for each cell that is infected).

                  Another significant factor is that survivors usually have significant immunity, even to later, mutated strains.

                • When dealing with infectious diseases in general, and viri especially, you need to make a distinction between infecting and pathogenic (http://www.answers.com/topic/infection - notice the word may in the first definition)).
                  When someone has Influenza, most, if not all, of the people around him will be infected, but few will develop an overt disease. For the virus this is a good thing, because people who are infected and are asymptomatic (or mildly symptomatic) pass on the virus better than someone who dies f

    • by dissy (172727)

      I've long thought that THIS is how intelligent life destroys itself. Basically, technology increases until the power to destroy all life can be used by a single insane individual.
      *snip*
      There's no way we would know about it, and there's nothing we could do about it.

      indeed, this has been predicted as early as the 1950s, and some of our brighter thinkers have even come up with potential solutions 50 years ago.

      Unfortunately I think we as a species, or even a collection of nations, will not do what is required to prevent damages and our extinction before it is too late.

      The article below by Eric Drexler is specifically in regards to nanotechnology at a level of full remote control or programming ability. We are of course still far off from that, but two things we should a

    • by Surt (22457)

      By the time we have the technology for that, we'll also have smart people thinking about how to detect that, and as much as you'd like your pathogen to be both airborne and to hide in the body and kill the host instantly, that is not an easy thing to accomplish. And smarter people, coordinated in teams, will have had years to build up defenses against such a pathogen.

      • And smarter people, coordinated in teams, will have had years to build up defenses against such a pathogen.

        That's like saying that once we have nuclear weapons, "smarter people, coordinated in teams, will have had years to build up defenses against such a" weapon. I don't see a defense against a nuclear bomb on the horizon. Our only defense (so far) is the fact that it takes government-level resources to make one (and not a single insane individual), and severe international restrictions. And I don't know

        • by Surt (22457)

          People have invested tons in nuclear defense. The US has made many billions of dollars worth of investments into nuclear defense, and to ensuring that a lone actor CANNOT in fact initiate a nuclear assault that could destroy all of humanity. Even an organized terrorist group with a large number of members has been unable to acquire even a single nuclear weapon.

          We have a lot of very smart people working on how to prevent precisely the crazy bio engineer scenario, and I think there is reason to hope. We ca

      • by kent_eh (543303)
        The open source model [globecampus.ca] is already being applied to disease control
        Scientists are able to see the benefits of working together without The Economist telling them that it's a good idea.
    • Artificial, or just naturally advancing superbug-biology is a serious threat to mankind and all other higher life forms, and could be one of the reasons that we don't see much intelligent life trying to talk to us from outer space. The unity of multicellular lifeforms - together we stand alone we fall - can provide to specialization necessary where braincells get developed, and in exchange for food, they provide the other cells with strategic decisions, such as where to run. And boy, is maintaining a large
      • Imagine the natural evolution of a virus that figures out a way to attack and destroy all eukaryote cells. Even if it's just a human specific disease. Especially with air travel these days, epidemics can spread very quickly and quarantining is difficult.

        There's a very high probability that virus would cease to exist in short order. Evolution favors viruses that preserve their hosts at least until they've had ample opportunity to spread. Even artificially developed viruses, not subject to the pressures of na

    • by Starcub (527362)

      This person decides to destroy all human life, because they hate mankind (picture some enviro-nut).

      Or, someone might decide to wipe out all human life AND sea life (picture some oil executive).

  • Maybe we will ask ourselves, one day, why we didn't make a backup of nature.
  • Making something open sourced or putting most things in the public domain does not remove the ability to hide things. Anyone who wants to use this technology in private will be able to do so regardless of the communities openness. TFA seems to miss this fact.
  • But what's to say the Bad Guy will? I mean when Kim Jong-Il IV creates his monster bug to wipe out all humanity (excepting his descendants and a few breeding women), why would he Open Source it?

  • Saying "when the power to build living organisms filters through to anyone with a laptop" is like saying, "when the power to install Linux filters through with anyone with a laptop". It will never happen because both systems require you to have some training and education that "anyone" will never be willing to obtain before installing.
  • Traditional methods of restricting and regulating dangerous technology have more or less worked so far, but the Economist thinks that this time may be different. They are calling for an open system where the 'good guys' can see and counter any dangerous organisms that are released, accidentally or otherwise.

    Microorganisms aren't quite like software where vulnerabilities can be easily discovered from source code. Sure, having complete genomic and proteomic data makes finding potential vulnerabilities easier, but drug discovery and development is still extremely difficult and expensive even when such data already exists. A better solution would be to engineer susceptibility to a number of antimicrobials (both artificial and naturally occurring), say 6-9, which could be used in combinations of 2 or 3 which are ro

  • The article is way too optimistic and as expected weak on science. They start out with the old mindset of each bacterial line being completely seperate, totally missing the extensive lateral gene transfers that have spread such wonders as antibiotic resistance and the toxins that created O157...
    And follow it up with assumption that knowing the code makes it so much easier to figure out how to stop or fix any problem organisms arise. We still barely understand protein folding, and then only with the help
  • ... a similar story on Slashdot talking about open sourcing the battle against disease, with the concept that "with enough eyes, all bugs become shallow", and ultimately how there was the concern that it would create a new type of malware that could do a lot more damage than the rest of the world could offset. I mean, even when we're trying to do good, we can make things that are utter poison... imagine if some borderline nutbar in a university lab got dumped by his girlfriend and decided to take revenge o

    • imagine if some borderline nutbar in a $X lab got treated badly by $Y_j in $Y and decided to take revenge on $Y by making a $Z that would leave $EVERYBODY - $Y intact. Sure, you could make an $ANTI_Z with enough people and effort, but how many people world die in the meantime? We see the battle between dedicated coders already with DRM and DRM-cracking... if that were to happen in the $X space, it would be an utter disaster.

      It's easy for me to fill in these variables with things I don't know much about. The more I know about a subject, the harder it is to believe that it's possible for one person to have the foresight, depth of knowledge, and resources to single-handedly work around the enormous number of variations, complications, and unknowns that would get in the way of killing a large fraction of the human population.

      I'm not saying it doesn't make for good fiction, just that doing anything wide-reaching in the real world

      • by MrAndrews (456547) *

        Well, admittedly the gap between a synthetic genome and widespread bioterror is pretty immense, but then the subject here is also open source biology, which I think assumes a lot of progress will need to be made in developing the science and tools as well. And once you start trying to develop those tools, it's pretty safe to say you'll discover what you SHOULDN'T do before you stumble upon any magic cures.

        Never mind the Bond villain trying to take over the world, and never mind wiping out even a small frac

        • by Derf the (610150)

          As my service to the whales, or just for your next book plot...

          I can easily imagine a forward thinking wealthy middle eastern Muslim extremist who perceives the new expansionistic Chinese
          [not all beliefs depicted here are held by the author]
          as the greatest insult to Allah
          [Christianity & it's bastard sons (the West etc.) being the old & quite useful enemy]
          and
          [hey pick any variables around the core of the not infinitely improbable Rich + Extremist + Longterm view]
          have him specifically educate/indoctr

    • It always amazes me the power of buzz-words. I work in medicine and every few years you have a new buzz-word. A few years ago it was "anti-oxidants", and now angiogenesis [ted.com] is starting to pop-up, promising to cure everything from cancer, through impotence all the way to ingrown nails. And then some time passes, and you have some studies done and you find out that "Yes, it is good for some stuff, but isn't a Panacea [wikipedia.org]."
      The same thing is happening in IT. You get some concept, in this case open-source, that is goo

  • If women open-sourced their biology, any geek could have any woman they wanted, as many times as they wanted!

    And if you're worried about STDs, just compare Windows to Linux. Which has the most infections?

  • Homeless programmers with pickets that read "Will code food for food".
  • Just an Interesting Sci-Fi book by Frank Herbert(the one who wrote Dune) about what can happen if Bioengineering becomes more affordable: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_White_Plague [wikipedia.org]
  • I would seem that this quote from TFA could sum it all, but stating that "most bacteria opt for an easy life breaking down organic material that is already dead" clearly shows that the author has not grasped that Life cannot be studied separately from Evolution and Survival.

    Billions of years ago, Evolution has started from such bacteria and led to us humans, for whom the "easy life" option is to "break down organic material" that is alive and well, preferably members of our own species.

    From Evolution's poin

  • You thought jellyfish were a problem; any science fiction writer could sketch out twelve different scenarios were out-of-control bacteria either eat up all plastic, mutate , then eat everything organic. Or Viagra bacteria escape into our drinking water.. Those are the funny scenarios.

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