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Biotech Science

The Opening of Biotech 200

RockinRobStar writes "ABC Science have posted an article about an Australian geneticist, Dr Richard Jefferson, pushing for "free access to the scientific tools of modern biology and genetics...just as computer programming tools were shared in the open source software movement." "The scientific tools...would be licensed under a similar agreement as the general public licence". Dr Jefferson plans to present his program to the World Economic Forum in January."
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The Opening of Biotech

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  • Problems (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Talrias ( 705583 ) <chris AT starglade DOT org> on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:12PM (#7599229) Homepage
    The problem with this is that scientists want to get credit for what they are doing. Both of my parents are scientists and even though they want to get more people interested in science they want to get the credit, not someone else who manages to see that two and two equals four where they didn't.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:20PM (#7599347)
    If this post were only _slightly_ more thought out and not so reactionary id would probably mod up. I know they are trolling but some good points are made. The disease industry we have in America is not the right system for the rest of the world (just like sometimes democracy isnt). Eventually for humans to continue and survive over the next 100 years information will become free - the internet is certainly a catalyst and is enabling the sharing of informaton that could have meant death for treason a scant twenty years ago. I like to see a little hope in the news every now and again but it seems the above troll still sees the bottle as half empty....
  • Common Sense (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spoonboy42 ( 146048 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:24PM (#7599394)
    Well, the impact of this all depends on what is meant by "tools". A lot of the tools of the trade for genetic research (lysing and ligand enzymes, PCR machines, etc.) can easily be purchased from many scientific suppliers, and the methods for creating such tools are well enough known that they can easily be replicated (at my old high school, I kid you not, the Biology teacher and some students constructed a fully functional home-made PCR setup using off-the-shelf hobbyist robotics compnents).

    Now, what I'm thinking is that this fellow is proposing "open research". This is a direct reaction to the flurry of biotech patents we've seen over the last few years. Instead of jeleaously gaurding any new biotechnological inventions or discoveries, they would be shared with the community and opened up for peer review. My, that sounds familiar... maybe because it's what the process of scientific inquiry has depended on for centuries. In fact, you might recall that when RMS founded the FSF, his goal was to rekindle the spirit of "software as science" that had existed in the early days of computing. In the days of "biotech as business", scientific openness is an old idea whose time has once again come.
  • Re:Problems (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Llyr ( 561935 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:30PM (#7599470)
    As a scientist myself (albeit a computer scientist) I certainly do get credit for what I do, even what I do that I allow the world to use (by, for example, publishing an algorithm). Of course, publishing is part of my job and so I don't need to hoard my innovations in order to make money from them. It would be rather different if I worked for a company -- but even in the business world there are companies that see the value in publishing their techniques in order to advance science.

    Hoarding key biotech techniques gives a few companies control over what's done with them, which is potentially extremely problematic. It also promotes keeping the basic techniques quiet until they've been able to exploit them for what they want to do, since the technique is not the end goal of their work.

    If I have discovered how to fish, do I fish on my own in secret and sell fish, or allow others to observe (or teach them)? Someone could even improve on my methods.

  • by SexyKellyOsbourne ( 606860 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:32PM (#7599484) Journal

    Considering that the world is currently in a stage where third-world rogue nations, and not a duality of superpowers keeping each other in check, are developing high technology, especially weapons of mass destruction.

    While the implementation of open source programs and operating systems are great, genetic science is playing God by modifying organisms in irreperable ways, whether they're perceived to be good, bad, or sort of silly like those glowing fish. Even worse, such tools under skilled hands -- usually free university education in the west -- could be used to make gene-specific bioweapons or unstoppable virii like our army just did.

    Imagine their scientists getting a huge head start with "accessible" genetics tools under the iron fist of a dictator who would want to use them for blackmail, and then goes insane for one reason or another and acutally uses them. Even if they reached the level the US and the USSR were at in the 1970s or more realistically, the 1980s, with their research, it could still spell disaster.

    Most of this playing-God genetic stuff shouldn't even be developed in the first place, much less be made more accessible to the despots of the third world like an open source program.

  • Re:Uhoh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fenix down ( 206580 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:33PM (#7599501)
    We wouldn't want people being able to clone themselves at home.

    Why not?

    Maybe I'd think you had a point if you were talking about home genetic engineering, or if we had tubes where you could pump out backup copies of yourself like in a Governor Arnold movie, but cloning is just cloning. There's almost no issue there, besides whether cloning causes health problems in the clone. I can make my own Prozac with less expertise and cheaper equipment than I'd need to clone myself, and nobody's up in arms about that.

    Everybody goes on about how cloning is a moral crisis, without ever pointing out exactly where the crisis is. Rich people cloning themselves? They do that now, they just use somebody else's DNA to help. Overpopulation? How is a screaming food-hole that's genetically identical to you any more appealing than a screaming food-hole that's only 40-60% genetically identical to you? Cloned soldiers? That's a movie, if you're going to form an army of brainwashed-from-birth psychos, cloning isn't going to help you very much. Other than the fact that we're playing God by shockingly inserting on our genetic material into an egg cell in order to reproduce manually rather than leaving it to a chemical reaction, I don't get the shock and horror.

    I understand not wanting to clone people until we can figure out whether or not you end up with a genetically diseased baby, that's reasonable and absolutely necessary, but being appaled at the very idea of circumventing miosis is just weird to me. But perhaps I'm just odd.
  • Re:Problems (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Apogee ( 134480 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:34PM (#7599513)
    How unproductive. No wonder cancer hasn't been cured yet, if this is the sort of "me, me, me" squabbling that goes on in science.

    Understandable though, assuming that this credit leads to further funding for the said scientists.

    Yes, you are right ... collaborating instead of competing for sure could lead to more interesting research, faster breakthroughs and a good community spirit among scientists. But in biology (that's the only discipline I can really talk about), this is pretty much a thing of the past, since grants, funding, positions in academia as well as in industry are to a large extent a direct function of how many papers you have published, and in what journals you published them. Only the best and brightest (something like 20-30 articles at age 35, and a handful of them in excellent journals) will get a shot at a group leader position.

    This system has its merits, but one corollary is that you're not actually selecting the best and brightest, but perhaps the best-connected and those who can "sell" their work better than others. Another corollary, which is more damaging in the long run perhaps, is that nobody shares his data unless his authorship is acknowledged and under lock and seal. Conferences have become boring. I hear that 10-15 years ago, people would come to conferences and share the freshest, most exciting data from their lab. Nowadays, nobody gives a talk or shows a poster at a conference where the data isn't already published (i.e. you most likely read it already), or at least accepted for publication (i.e. you maybe read the e-pub ahead of print).

    It's sad, and it's - exactly as you stipulate - due to all the rewards being tied to your publication record. Publish or perish, as they say.
  • by Apogee ( 134480 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @12:43PM (#7599599)
    I think I do see your point, but I guess a distinction can be made between tools, i.e. methods, reagents, protocols (and to some extent labware) that are necessary for basic science and the drug development process. In the end, cheap access to basic biotech techniques may be beneficial for big pharma, as well, cutting down research costs.

    There are some things on the market in biotech where the distributor (typically the company didn't invent it, they bought the rights from a university) are more or less monopolizing a technique, with the help of patents and license agreements. And the price that you pay at university for this stuff is - while it's expensive - nothing to the price big pharma has to spend for the same thing. I am not talking about hi-tech equipment, but for instance a method + all the reagents to create stably transfected cell lines (that is, a cell that expresses a newly inserted gene). Sure, the work of the person who built up the system needs to be acknowledged, but the price for this kit is just a phantasy price.

    In the end, I think, big pharma wouldn't suffer all that much, and neither would drug development
  • by Apogee ( 134480 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @01:09PM (#7599918)
    Since when has 'restricting the spread of advanced XYZ knowledge' ever worked? Sure, the RIAA/MPAA would love to contain the spreading of the dangerous knowledge that you can use file sharing programs, and microsoft would love to keep all the advances knowledge about how to build an OS secret. After all, knowing how an OS works could arguably lead to damages and lives lost, like hacking into a power grid (yes, I am becoming a bit melodramatic, I'll stop now, I promise).

    My point is: It's a bad idea to restrict the spread of knowledge, since we simply can't. Good textbooks about biology will teach you a fair bit about molecular biology, and lab techniques. All this can be used for good or for bad purposes, as with (almost) all technology. So how do you wish to contain this knowledge? Prohibit anyone from teaching biology? Or perhaps teach biology only in the US, thus protecting the homeland? (oops I am bitter again...)

    In that vein, do you think that amending the GPL would help in containing information? Bad people who are planning to kill usually don't worry too much about breaking the terms of a license. And as for the Ebola genome, it's here [], courtesy of the NIH. And it is there, publicly available, since some people are actually wanting to study it to find a remedy, and fortunately, they are not all employed by the USAMRIID or DoD but are all over the world.
  • by dumllama ( 715921 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @01:47PM (#7600314) Homepage
    I'm so sick of this meaningless "playing God" argument. First, no-one agrees on what "God" is or what it would mean to imitate Him. Second, by any reasonable interpretation of what "playing God" means, humanity has been doing it for millenia:

    1) Domestication of plants/animals
    2) Human-forced extinctions (the exitnction of smallpox was intentional, and there are more intentional extinctions to come, including some animals)
    3) Wholesale replacement of natural ecosystems with anthrocentric ecosystems (rural, sububan, and urban)
    4) Alterations to the atmosphere (drastic CO2 increases)
    5) Digging enormous holes in the Earth and bringing up elements such as Selenium, that used to be almost non-existant on the Earth's surface
    6) Nuclear Fusion (that only happens in stars!!!)
    7) Global transportation networks that have demolished the geographical barriers to species movement
    8) A near-instantaneous global communication network
    9) Launching lifeforms into outer-space.
    10) Executions.

    Basically every technological and organizational advancement of the human race could be described as humans "playing God". The funny thing is that if we look at the history of life, there are pre-human analogies for the things that humans are doing. We're just life, taken to the next level.
  • "Most" (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tepples ( 727027 ) <{tepples} {at} {}> on Monday December 01, 2003 @02:08PM (#7600580) Homepage Journal

    Most of this playing-God genetic stuff shouldn't even be developed in the first place

    Genetic engineering produced synthetic human insulin and the anti-breast cancer medication Herceptin. How do you define "most"?

  • Re:Problems (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rowanxmas ( 569908 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @03:23PM (#7601393)
    Don't forget that while someone may have 20-30 articles, what matters is how often they are referenced. That way the impact that you have has a measurable quantity.
  • by linoleo ( 718385 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2003 @01:31PM (#7619662) Journal

    I'm not sure how I would feel, and what mental strain would be thrust upon me if I were to be able to look at my mother/father and know that I was an exact biological copy, with an overwhelminmg likelihood of getting - say - prostate/ovarian cancer at age 43.

    All a matter of perspective. In her 1976 story "Houston, Houston, do you read?", James Tiptree, Jr. subverted this position by positing a future in which cloning has become the norm, sexual reproduction having been eliminated by disease:

    "It's so perfect," [the clones] tell him. "We each have a book, it's really a library. The Book of Judy Shapiro, that's us. Dakar and Paris are our personal names, we're doing cities now." They laugh, trying not to talk at once about how each Judy adds her individual memoir, her adventures and problems and discoveries in the genotype they all share. [...] "We make excerpts of the parts we like best. And practical things, like Judys should watch out for skin cancer."

    And our cherished "biological uniqueness" elicits only pity from the Judys:

    "How do you know who you are? Or who anybody is? All alone, no sisters to share with! You don't know what you can do, or what would be interesting to try. All you poor singeltons, you---why, you just have to blunder along and die, all for nothing!"

    In short, biological uniqueness, being pretty much the only game in town at this point, may be grossly overrated.

    - nic

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"