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Biotech

The Spread of Do-It-Yourself Biotech 206

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-just-for-terrorists-and-governments-anymore dept.
zrbyte writes "Are you an electronics hobbyist or a garden shed tinkerer? If so, then move aside, because there's a new kid on the block: the DIY biotechnologist. The decreasing price of biotech instrumentation has made it possible for everyday folks (read: biotech geeks) with a few thousand dollars to spare to equip their garages and parents' basements with the necessary 'tools of the trade.' Some, like PCR machines, are available on eBay; other utensils are hacked together from everyday appliances and some creativity. For example: microscopes out of webcams and armpit E. coli incubators. Nature News has an article on the phenomenon, describing the weird and wonderful fruits of biotech geek ingenuity, like glow-in-the-dark yogurt. One could draw parallels with the early days of computer building/programming. It may be that we're looking at a biotech revolution, not just from the likes of Craig Venter, but from Joe-next-door hacking away at his E. coli strain. What are the Steve Wozniaks of biotech working on right now?"
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The Spread of Do-It-Yourself Biotech

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  • Just great... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by KarrdeSW (996917) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:33AM (#33908648)
    Now I have to worry about the my idiot roommate engineering a virus that'll cause the zombie apocalypse?
    • by brainboyz (114458)

      I was going to post the exact same. The thought of them playing with genes that may interact with my body is scary. Not that I plan to stop them, they're free to do as they wish, but keep it contained!

    • Re:Just great... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by interkin3tic (1469267) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:42AM (#33908754)

      You should be more worried about your idiot roommate not washing his hands and getting you sick the old fashioned way. It's unlikely that even if he tried, he could make a disease more lethal than what nature has produced before.

      By the way, those people who think HIV was created in a government lab seriously underestimate how cleverly made HIV is. It's way beyond our best evil geniuses.

      • Re:Just great... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by bhartman34 (886109) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:47AM (#33908806)

        It's unlikely that even if he tried, he could make a disease more lethal than what nature has produced before.

        It's not the idea of someone trying to make a disease that worries me. What worries me is the idea of someone moroning it up and accidentally producing something dangerous because they don't know what they're doing. The well-meaning idiot scenario is almost certainly more likely than the evil genius scenario.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          The parallel with computer programming looks even more appropriate now that I read this.
        • Re:Just great... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by wizardforce (1005805) on Friday October 15, 2010 @12:16PM (#33909120) Journal

          As a biologist let me say that that is ridiculous. It's like creating a highly efficient piece of malware on accident. However, back to the GP's post: it doesn't need to be deadlier than nature; nature after all, has evolved organisms that are overkill- it just needs to be mildly effective to be a problem.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by bhartman34 (886109)
            It's not a question of efficiency, necessarily. It's a question of possible unintended consequences. It's fairly difficult to write a highly-efficient piece of malware. It's fairly easy to accidentally do something destructive. It's why people are not encouraged to run programs as root on their machines. Do I think someone's going to accidentally create a superbug through their own tinkering? No. But can you tell me it's impossible someone gets a hold of a pathogen and it doesn't accidentally escape,
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by HungryHobo (1314109)

              The *mutate and escape* scenario is far more likely to happen at your local farmyard as regular old viruses cross speciese back and forth mutating as they go.
              Yet I don't ever see people terrified that a farmer will accidentally kill us all.

          • by guruevi (827432)

            Exactly. You don't need to make a zombie-making superbug that kills everybody in sight. That will just get quarantined and fixed (nuked from orbit or so) as soon as it is identified. What you need is something with a long incubation period that is transferred much like the common cold or the flu. Within a couple of weeks all modern societies will be infected and you can send all of the Western world back to the stone age.

            Either way, there will be survivors. Just hope you are the lucky one to be among them.

          • by Shotgun (30919)

            I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just saying that you should really look into what happened with the Morris Worm, especially with what Morris thought was going to happen and what actually happened.

        • Re:Just great... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by IICV (652597) on Friday October 15, 2010 @12:22PM (#33909230)

          Not very likely. Evolution is like a trillion monkeys hammering away at potential genomes; if creating one that was viciously deadly to humans were easy, it probably would have happened already. One more monkey hammering away at it won't change much.

          • Evolution is like a trillion monkeys hammering away at potential genomes

            That analogy doesn't go quite far enough. Evolution is more like a trillion monkeys hamering away at potential genomes, and keeping the ones that work out.

        • Re:Just great... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by HungryHobo (1314109) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:07PM (#33909846)

          How many people do you know who accidentally tripped while coding an application and unintentionally programmed a virulent computer virus?
          Bio viruses are orders of magnitude more complex, it's exceedingly unlikely to happen by random chance.

          • I don't know a lot of people who accidentally programmed a virulent virus, but I know of people who've accidentally done things like run rm -rf on the wrong directory, or coded (and distributed) macros that did unexpected things in Word documents. And operating systems routinely have bugs in their initial releases that have to be patched later.

            If you doubt that people can accidentally muck with nature and produce disastrous consequences, just consider dogs. Humans have bred dogs for specific traits, but t

          • Re:Just great... (Score:4, Interesting)

            by jbengt (874751) on Friday October 15, 2010 @02:05PM (#33910606)
            You a optimistically assuming that the "author" of the virus (software or bioware) starts from scratch. More likely they play with an existing virus and unthoughtfully modify it in a way that make it worse for people, even if also worse for the virus' purposes.
        • 7 Billion people around the world are actively engaged in (unintentional) home-brew microbiological experimentation. I really doubt that a few hundred "intentional" experimenters are going to bend the curve of viral and bacteriological evolution.

          Speaking of which; the next time Sarah Palin claims evolution is too slow, or that we should be able to "see" it happening; will not some idiot reporter remember that HIV, SARS, Swine Flu, and Bird Flu are all examples of evolution in her own lifetime?

          • 7 Billion people around the world are actively engaged in (unintentional) home-brew microbiological experimentation. I really doubt that a few hundred "intentional" experimenters are going to bend the curve of viral and bacteriological evolution.

            Well, I think 7 billion is an overestimate. You need to eliminate from that number those who are either a) not at sexual maturity, or b) not inclined to procreate because of sexual preference. (For the sake of argument, we'll assume that every heterosexual capable of procreating wants to procreate.) But whatever the number is, plenty of this experimentation leads to unintended consequences. You've got congenital birth defects, the potential for genetic mental illness, and people who just give their chil

      • Just his hands? How about the jeans he wiped them off on while playing evil scientist?

        It's true that a hobbyist isn't likely to take something benign and turn it into HIV or the bubonic plague, but those are extreme cases, far more than what's needed to kill you. Lethality comes in many degrees, all of which are dangerous enough inside the laboratory, so casually tinkering with E Coli is probably unnecessarily more dangerous than something which isn't already very capable of harming us.

        Unless specificall

        • by Twinbee (767046)

          My germs, my precious germs!

          They never harmed a soul. They never even had a chance!

        • I think the point was that he's more likely to infect you with regular old natural diseases due to not washing his hands.

          To extend this logic further.
          Your friend might accidentally produce botulism toxin while home-brewing wine.
          he might make a mistake in his math and accidentally cause a grey goo outbreak while tinkering with electronics
          He might trip and accidentally create a virulent botnet while trying to code up a flash game.
          He might fall, cause some strange mix of spices and surface cleaners to fall int

      • From the what I've read, re-engineering a flu virus to be deadly is only a matter of altering a few (known) genes. The difficulty is in the tools available to the common would-be virus creator, not in the know-how. You can even order proteins online, which are filtered against certain deadly combinations being requested by customers. If a home/hobbyist/cottage industry develops around this, then biothreats may well become a much serious issue that we need to face as a society. More serious than the fake

      • by juhaz (110830)

        It's unlikely that even if he tried, he could make a disease more lethal than what nature has produced before

        While that may be true for "idiot roommate", there's no reason why it should be for evil geniuses. Nature favors less-lethal diseases, a pathogen that kills off all it's hosts or kills too fast to spread effectively is an evolutionary dead-end and obviously there are huge selection pressures against such behavior.

        By the way, those people who think HIV was created in a government lab seriously underestimate how cleverly made HIV is. It's way beyond our best evil geniuses.

        Building something like HIV from scratch is way beyond us, but taking something like it that already has the important clever parts and adding something nature doesn't think is clever - too much de

      • So, you're saying we need better evil geniuses?

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        By the way, those people who think HIV was created in a government lab seriously underestimate how cleverly made HIV is. It's way beyond our best evil geniuses.

        Um, I think if I was going to create something evil, I'd make it a lot easier to catch than a blood-bourne disease. HIV is incredibly hard to catch, especially if you're a heterosexual male that doesn't do intravenous drugs. If you don't use needles or have anal sex you're almost immune. You have to get the virus directly in your blood to get infecte

    • by ByOhTek (1181381)

      Nahh. I'll beat him to it.

    • idiot roommate engineering a virus

      To be serious for a moment (I know this can be frown upon in non-CS topics), engineering a virus is more work than modifying a bacteria. Because if you remember anything junior high biology, bacterias are man times larger than viruses, making them much easier to work with.

      To wit, there is so far no known virus (size) DIYbio projects known within the communities, and the government (namely FBI) have been monitoring groups to watch for idiots asking for advice on malicious uses of host/target species (i.e. kn

  • by D3 (31029)
    Having worked as a research assistant in a mol bio lab, this scares the hell out of me. I don't want people creating the next super bug in their garage. Responsible research labs follow protocols about dealing with the bio-hazardous waste they generate. What happens when your neighbor releases his new organism by accident? And do we really need 'home brew' for this? If you want to study this stuff, go to school for it!
    • Re:BAD idea (Score:4, Interesting)

      by durrr (1316311) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:43AM (#33908758)

      What happens when your neighbor releases his new organism by accident?

      You'll end up with green flourescent beer and bread.
      Seriously though, microbes are not rabid dogs, most of them are not virulent, most of them don't live in humans, and even if they do they have quite a few problems before they can colonize you. And if you're to suffer from them they need to produce some kind of toxins. And if you're to wreak havoc with them you need to weaponize them, and if you're at this stage you've probably done enough to see a FBI-sponsored surge in the profits of the local take-away coffee chain.

      • by jeffmeden (135043)

        What happens when your neighbor releases his new organism by accident?

        You'll end up with green flourescent beer and bread.

        Seriously though, microbes are not rabid dogs, most of them are not virulent, most of them don't live in humans, and even if they do they have quite a few problems before they can colonize you. And if you're to suffer from them they need to produce some kind of toxins. And if you're to wreak havoc with them you need to weaponize them, and if you're at this stage you've probably done enough to see a FBI-sponsored surge in the profits of the local take-away coffee chain.

        *Most* of them, huh... Why am I still not comfortable after your reassurance...

      • Microbes may not be rabid dogs, but they have this uncanny compatibility with each other and the ability to exchange plasmids [wikipedia.org] even across species.

        That's what made antibiotic resistance spread so fast across so many different bacteria. They didn't all come up with the same mutation, they got a copy of it from a friendly neighbour bacteria who already had it. (Yeah, bacteria totally don't understand copyright;))

        So essentially, best case scenario, from glow-in-the-dark yoghurt you could get glow-in-the-dark sh

    • do we really need 'home brew' for this? If you want to study this stuff, go to school for it!

      Booooo..

      I find this a little scary too, but if they're smart/geeky enough to even want to try this at home, don't you think they'd also take some appropriate cautionary measures? After all, the first person in the line of fire is themself if something goes wrong..

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by bhartman34 (886109)
        History is replete with examples of people doing things because they could, without considering the question of whether or not they should. It's almost certain that someone will rush headlong into a project like this without adequately preparing for contingencies. It's no different than someone buying a gun and being lax about gun safety.
        • Re:BAD idea (Score:4, Insightful)

          by bhartman34 (886109) on Friday October 15, 2010 @12:05PM (#33909000)
          Just as a quick clarification: I don't mean to sound anti-gun. Everyone has a legal right to own a gun if they want to (subject to certain restrictions). I was just pointing out that there are people who don't take it quite as seriously as they should. Regardless of whether you think guns kill people or people kill people, it's undeniable that a person with a gun can kill people, so guns should be treated with due care.
          • Everyone has a legal right to it in the US anyway..

            I'm sure a lot of good as well as bad things have resulted from people doing things just because they "could". If we didn't do things simply because we could, the world would be a very dull place, and we probably wouldn't have advanced very far technically.

            • I should've specified the U.S. in my comments about guns. Sorry about that.

              I'm not against stretching the limits of what we can do. I'm not even against doing risky things. What I'm saying is that some level of care needs to be taken that we're at least trying to assess risks. And maybe the guy doing the experiment shouldn't be the one who makes that assessment. In academic settings, those safeguards are in place. In some guy's basement, they won't be.

              • In academic settings, those safeguards *should be* in place
                In some guy's basement, they *might not be*.

                • In some guy's basement, they won't be in place. How could they have advisory panels and such, in such a low-scale environment? I could see a corporation having those kinds of safeguards, but not individuals.
          • by zrbyte (1666979)
            I agree with you. To put it in a broader perspective, technology is a tool. It can be used for bad or good purposes, with differing degrees of positive or negative impact). This is true for every form of technology, not just high tech things. An axe can be used to chop down a tree and it can just as easily be a murder weapon. The same with biotech. Technological progress needs to matched by moral progress so the should we? question can be put forward with glowing red lights, especially in cases where the ne
            • by jbengt (874751)

              An axe can be used to chop down a tree and it can just as easily be a murder weapon.

              Well, to be pedantic, it is somewhat harder to use an axe as a murder weapon than to chop down a tree, as trees tend to not fight back as much.

        • by rgviza (1303161)
          It's usually not the owner of the gun that causes problems, it's the other idiots in the house that do. To your credit, locking the gun up and controlling access to it is part of gun safety. This is the part that most people who have an incident overlook. More to your point, it's likely that biohazard safety and security protocols won't be followed by some people, leading to big problems for the other people on the premises, like curious children, pets, and insane people. I get what you are saying and ag
          • To your credit, locking the gun up and controlling access to it is part of gun safety.

            Yeah. That's kind of what I was thinking about when I wrote that. The kind of people who keep their gun in an unlocked desk drawer well in reach of little Johnny.

      • by jeffmeden (135043)

        We are never quite as good at judging risk when it's our own butt on the line vs. someone elses'. Why do you think there are car accidents, household accidents, sports accidents, etc. on a daily basis that kill a LOT of people. All this would take is one "containment accident" and all of a sudden the next super-swine-flu is among us with no warning and no borders to close to protect us from it's spread.

      • by Plunky (929104)

        I find this a little scary too, but if they're smart/geeky enough to even want to try this at home, don't you think they'd also take some appropriate cautionary measures? After all, the first person in the line of fire is themself if something goes wrong..

        You would certainly think so but lets not forget about David Hahn [wikipedia.org] who actually didn't..

    • by Hatta (162192)

      If people like you were around in the 19th century, chemistry would have been set back for decades, if not centuries.

      • but but but but .. someone might create nerve gas if they get their hands on a chemistry kit!
        Or they might accidentally create an ultra-super poison that will evaporate and kill everyone within 10 miles of their basement!

  • by migloo (671559) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:41AM (#33908742)
    Glow-in-the-dark slippers would be more useful.
    • by durrr (1316311)
      It serves its purpose.
      "Oh, that stain, it's yougurt, look it will glow when i expose it to this flourescent light"
      "..."
      "Somethings wrong, maybe it's just normal yogurt!"
    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      What could be better than a fridge that lights itself up as long as it's stocked with yogurt? I can finally stop replacing that damn bulb that I keep knocking into with the milk jug.

    • Just make glow-in-the-dark spider silk with those silkworks from a few stories back. I'm sure that's a perfect material for making cocoons out of! It's like an eternal nightlight. And then you can have your slippers and see them, too.

    • I like it - based no doubt on adding a glowing gene to toejam bacteria!

      (bonus feature - glow in the dark Limburger.)

  • by Scrameustache (459504) on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:45AM (#33908786) Homepage Journal

    I'd like to point out that the ambiguous "glow in the dark" quality mentioned here refers to the green fluorescent protein (GFP), a protein which exhibits bright green fluorescence when exposed to blue light. This isn't the good kind of glow in the dark where it produces its own light, it's the inferior "black light makes it glow" variety.

    • For those interested, the GFP is fluorescent (basically meaning it immediately emits photons upon radiation with UV but will not glow in the absence of it), "Glow in the dark" chemicals are phosphorescent (basically meaning it slowly releases photons after radiation with UV or visible light and glows for a period of time after the light source has been removed), and then there is chemiluminescent chemicals like luminol (which is an active chemical reaction that releases photons for as long as the reaction o

      • by pilgrim23 (716938)
        Marginally related: This reminds me of a article I read many many years ago on research done with UV on Egyptian pharaoh Mummy bones. If during your life you have taken tetracycline, your bones will develop a UV glow not present if you have not. It seems there is was a swamp in lower Nubia that developed a insect the bite of which was deadly yet those who ate some local plant (I read this years ago and forget the specifics), developed an immunity due to naturally occurring tetracycline. UV glow can occu
    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      "This isn't the good kind of glow in the dark where it produces its own light"

      The 'good' glow is called Luciferin.
      With that name it _has_ to be good.

  • biotch? (Score:3, Funny)

    by donnyspi (701349) <junk5@donnys[ ]com ['pi.' in gap]> on Friday October 15, 2010 @11:46AM (#33908796) Homepage
    Am I the only one who read this headline as "The Spread of Do-It-Yourself, Biotch!"
  • I could accept Biohackers, but the next step would be Bioscriptkiddies...
  • by elewton (1743958)
    I get loads of old lab equipment from the 80s that's being thrown out now, but still work pretty well or require minor repair. Many are more of a hassle than modern equipment, but some of it what I was using when I was in college.
    I don't GM organisms, but selectively breed fungi.

    I believe that it is only a matter of little time until someone releases a harmless virus into the population that contains the first 13 primes or an ASCII message. When this is discovered, the population will correctly be conc

  • Don't sell any of your equipment to anyone named O'Neill.

  • Still have to see the "do-it-yourself" biotech as the one shown in Varley's future (as in i.e. Steel Beach), where you could do on yourself complex body modifications as something so simple and easy that children used to do that.
  • Ultravision (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gurps_npc (621217) on Friday October 15, 2010 @12:22PM (#33909226) Homepage
    The human eye contains rods and cones to see color. Rods detect light at 498nm frequeny, short cones peak at 420 (purple), medium cones peak at 534 nm (green) and long cones peak at 564 nm (red).

    But birds have cones that can see far greater. Some birds can see as low as 375 nm. This lets them see ultraviolet.

    How hard would it be to find the gene that lets birds make this kind of cone cell and add it to a human? Breed for UV colorblind birds, compare their DNA with birds that can see UV, sample the DNA and try it out on a monkey first.

    P.S. the human lens tends to block light at frequencies of around 380, so we might only be able to see down to 385 nm, but that is still a boost of 35 nm, greater than the difference between green and red.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by durrr (1316311)
      Adding more color pigments within the range of normal color vision is also beneficial in that it allows for more subtle nuances of existing colors to be discerned.
  • A smart evil genius wouldn't create a plague. He or she would be more interested in creating a strain of tomato (or some other benign plant) with THC or cocaine or opium in its leaves. This is the stuff of folklore, well-known as a can-do sort of idea. It isn't farfetched. I don't know why it hasn't happened already.

    • by durrr (1316311)
      Because the gene encoding THC was only discovered last year. And just inserting it in tomatoes is not enough, you want it to be expressed at a very high level.
      Wait a few years and you'll probably read about the first example of finding it in tomatoes or yeast.
    • by speroni (1258316)

      Tomacco?

  • Not only are garage bioweapons a risk, but there's a ton of knowledge that's readily available to anyone. Some of the sequencers available on the open market are capable of synthesizing polio virus from raw materials. Couple that with research such as this, where researchers accidentally created a 100% deadly organism [newscientist.com], and you've got a big problem!

    Money quote from the article:

    "We wanted to make it clear to the scientific community that they should be careful, that it is not too difficult to create severe or

  • by PPH (736903)
    I've been growing stuff in my refrigerator for years.
  • Wake me when one of these garage geneticists splices the THC gene into tomatoes or kudzu...
  • Somewhat off topic, but why does this story have Blade Runner as a tag? I don't recall the novel or movie being much about biotechnology. Weren't they all androids?

    A more appropriate reference would be Windup Girl which is extremely relevant to the subject matter.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I like to do things myself: make bread and cheese, build my own computers and do landscaping, build sheds, chop firewood, knit, sew, try to repair everything I own at least a couple of times before I admit defeat.

    It's what I like to do.

    Earlier this year I was diagnosed with adult onset type 1 diabetes, and ever since I've been slowly realising that I'm completely dependent on modern society's medical system. This in itself is OK, but I have been tinkering with the idea of attempting to "produce" (I realise

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      It would be significantly easier to go back to "old school" and just extract it from the pancreas of animals. Assuming you aren't allergic to that form (which isn't chemically identicial to human insulin). Otherwise splicing the genes into E-coli can't be that difficult with modern equipment - it was done in 1978 after all. But I'm not a molecular biologist to know...

      One example of "old school", which is straight forward but tedious and hope to god you don't screw it up and inject the results:
      http://www.ncb [nih.gov]

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by MrBippers (1091791)
      Long story short, don't. It's not worth the risk. To "synthesize" your own you would need to obtain an isolated DNA sequence for insulin and transfect it into a cell line. Then culture the cell line and purify the insulin from cell products, most likely with some sort of chromatography. That said, this is not something you're going to easily accomplish at home. Producing proteins is not like making small molecule compounds. With small molecules you either have it or you don't. It isn't so cut and dry
  • I'm all for DIY home innovation and experiments, but this is going to be illegal pretty soon. Well not outright illegal, but like this: DIY Home Science Under Attack [slashdot.org]

    Whatever happened to Veeb's stuff anyway?

  • as someone who makes a pretty decent living doing PCR and growing e coli and doing DNA sequencing, I ain't worried - DIY biotech is no more a threat to the industry then DIY computer chips: you could probably buy reject wafers and etch a circuit on it in you backyard, you ain't never gonna threaten INTEL or AMD
  • "What are the Steve Wozniaks of biotech working on right now?"

    I'm working on no-light methods of producing fodder grass crops in insanely rapid time for raising livestock, high efficiency LED-based horticultural lighting, and LED-powered biofuel production.

    What are the rest of you guys working on?

  • Count me in the 'scared shitless' category. I was alarmed by the biotech trend years ago, so much that I wrote fiction about it. That fiction story has now turned into my webcomic, Genocide Man.

    Everyone who says we shouldn't worry because bioengineered germs aren't very virulent is missing the point. Virulence is an editable trait. They experimented with calicivirus in 1995 to make it more infectious to rabbits, to help cull the Australian feral rabbit population. They came up with a bug that was 99% l

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