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Biotech Bug Science

Synthetic Biology May Spawn Biohackers 320

nusratt writes "EE Times reports 'Design automation systems tailored to the task of genetic engineering . . . can lead to the accidental or deliberate creation of pathogenic biological components.' Design of molecular machines is analogous to doing system-on-chip work, and hackers 'will not need a detailed knowledge of biochemistry to effectively create complex biochemical machines.' A Harvard genetics professor says, 'Even if we don't have bioterrorists and teen-age biohackers, we will still create things that do not have the properties that we thought they would . . . Even if you are genetically resistant and recently immunized, you will have problems with artificial biological agents.' He also says that there are two big differences between this risk and nuclear weapons: (1) building weapons is harder; (2) synth-bio work is more accident-prone. Oh great, just great: script-kiddies with smallpox . . ."
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Synthetic Biology May Spawn Biohackers

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  • by foidulus ( 743482 ) * on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:09AM (#9642551)
    A 3 breasted blue haired girl with a nymphomaniac obsession for men with glasses and a fetish for Moutain Dew....
  • Yikes (Score:2, Funny)

    by amliebsch ( 724858 )
    Really gives "anti-virus protection" a more sinister meaning. Hopefully the white hats can produce counter-agents as fast as the black hats can make harmful strains.
    • Now we will all need biosuits with built in tin foil hats.
    • Re:Yikes (Score:5, Informative)

      by shotfeel ( 235240 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:15PM (#9643423)
      I wouldn't worry too much yet. IMO the article reads like a FUD/Science Fiction cross.

      So what if the circuit designers don't need to know all the physics behind what they're doing. They do need expertise in circuit design. In fact it amazes me sometimes how many people doing molecular biology don't even understand the chemistry behind what they're doing -they just follow the recipe. They do, however, know how to "design" what they're doing.

      Yes, many proteins have a somewhat "modular" structure, but just sticking these "modules" together is most likely going to give you a misfolded protein that does nothing but get immediately degraded or end up in the cellular equivalent of the junk heap (if it doesn't kill the cell expressing it first).

      There's all kinds of information in the article that IMO sounds much scarier and easier to do than it really is. From my vantage point it seems like it would be much harder to build a single working protein from pieces than to build an atomic bomb. It can take months to engineer a simple mutations and get a protein that's properly expressed.

      Considering how much hard work it takes for experts, using very expensive equipment an reagents to do this kind of thing, I'm not too worried about BioHackers quite yet.
  • by Space cowboy ( 13680 ) * on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:12AM (#9642596) Journal

    Even with a 'designer' bio-machine, the components will be similar/identical to already existing ones in normal life-forms. We know just how adaptable life can be, so even an unintentional slip-up could produce a noxious result :-(

    The problem is that a nuclear weapon needs an enormous number of things to be 'just so' before it'll go bang. You may be able to bodge together a 50% solution far easier when your building blocks are so much more adaptable...

    To draw a parallel with FPGA's, it's relatively easy to write a few hundred lines of verilog, which synthesize the gates wthin the adaptable fabric of the FPGA into a 60-80% solution. The hard bit is squeezing the last nanoseconds out of the device using technology mapping and hand-placement.

    The creation of tools to make bio-machines similar to verilog/VHDL would indeed potentially have grave consequences, but I can't see it going any other way. In both cases (Biology & chip-design) you have an enormous task to create something from scratch (enzymes/bases for biology, LUTs/LC's for FPGA's), so you write a description language and model in that instead. Far far simpler once you can map from the description to the reality...

    • That reminds of a software application I'd heard of a while back. Basically, you chose the options you wanted, and this application would create a computer virus out of pre-written parts to fit the bill.

      Antivirus software was particularly effective, though, as a whole new family of viruses had common components you could detect.

      I bet the body's immune system will respond in the same way. If you re-use the same formula for the virus shell, the same antibodies will react to a variety of viruses.
      • by nounderscores ( 246517 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:28AM (#9642827)
        there's a really good reference on the human immune system here at []

        The two really interesting parts are the adaptive immune system where there are the cell mediated (killer T-cell) and humoral (antibody) immune responses.

        Both use the principle of making molecules that will stick to bad molecules, and if they do triggering a cascade of events that eventually winds up destroying the bad molecule and the things affected by it, and leaving healthy tissue behind untouched (we hope).

        The really really good part is that you're right, if the viral coat proteins have the same chemical surface at specific regions called epitopes, then the same antibodies will be able to bind all of them, even if they're different in other places.

        Most molecules have several epitopes on them, although sometimes you have to bind most or all of these before a response is raised.

        Viruses in the wild beat this by mutating every time they reproduce inside a cell by using error prone replication techniques. After all, if you make a billion particles and only 2% work, you can still infect your next host quite smartly.

        That means that two individuals with the same disease, one catching it off the other, might have sufficiently different viral particles that an immunisation against one set of epitopes is ineffective. That's what happens with the common cold.
        • After all, if you make a billion particles and only 2% work, you can still infect your next host quite smartly.

          Couldn't this be countered by a similar "shotgun" inoculation consisting of billions of dead viruses each with a different structure? If only 2% of them would activate the immune system against the infecting HIV, you'd still get a fighting chance.

          Now I know it won't work because otherwise the pharma-giants would already be making money like crazy on it, but still I'd like to know why it won't w

          • by nounderscores ( 246517 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:03PM (#9643285)
            Good question. I don't know the answer to that - you'd have to subscribe to the Nature Immunology journal to hear the latest.

            My guess would be that it takes lots molecules of the same protein to raise an immune response, and only one viral particle is required to start an infection. A shotgun vaccine might have to include large quantites of protein injected into your blood to work, more than your body could tolorate.

            That's only a guess though. A modified version of the idea (like getting a lot of different haptens each bearing one epitope conjugated onto a carrier protein to raise an immune response) may yet work.
          • by Sgt York ( 591446 ) <jvolm@ea r t h l i n k .net> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:17PM (#9643445)
            nounder is on the right track. It takes a certain load to trigger an adaptive immune response. The problems with the shotgun approach to vaccination are that

            (1) you don't get an overwhelmingly higher concentraion of the effective antigens over the ineffective ones, so the system is not effectively triggered.

            (2) Even if it was possible to immunize against 100s of pathogens at once, it wouldn't be desireable. Clonal selection is a great tool the body uses to keep a vast reserve library in storage until needed. Inducing a memory response for certain antigens could remove (or reduce the incidence of) memory cell sets for other antigens. So, with the shotgun, you are now immune to a few hundred antgigens that don't realy pose a threat, while you have now lost your memory cell sets to a dozen types of rhinovirus, rotavirus, and a few strains of influenza (theorectially, and my apologies for the oversimplification).

        • Is this why (luckily) most virus that are very infective (e.g. a cold virus) are not very damaging and those that are very damaging are not very effective?

          Things like the cold virus perhaps don't do much damage because perhaps their replication is very "lossy" - but that makes them much more infective.

          Or I could be wrong about this, this is just a theory.
          • by JDevers ( 83155 )
            Well, effective from your standpoint (killing the host) or the viruses standpoint (reproducing). No virus "wants" (no intelligence, but you get my point) to kill it's host...but from a human perspective it seems like the "best" viruses are the ones that kill the most people. Rhinoviruses (common cold) are EXTREMELY successful BECAUSE they don't kill the host, not in spite of it. Most viruses that kill the host though are never really transmitted to all that many people though unless a lot of very lucky (
        • For reference: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by subtillus ( 568832 )
          Just so as you know, for the would be biohackers, the immune system is ridiculously complex and any slashdot posting, mine included could never do it justice.
          This is *the* book for beginning Immunology, written by Janeway who recently passed away:
 5 33642X/ qid=1089304040/sr=2-1/ref=sr_2_1/102-7999783-80057 25

          We've known about humoral immunity and mutation for a very long time. Nowadays the hotness is considered by many to be in the field of molecular mimicry and t
        • by bradbury ( 33372 ) <> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @01:36PM (#9644412) Homepage
          Actually the last statement is incorrect.

          The common cold is caused by Rhinoviruses which are a member of the family of picornaviridae (RNA viruses). The problem with rhinoviruses is that there are over 100 serotypes (sub-types) of the virus that have evolved over time. You do gain immunity to an individual serotype but you have would have to catch 1 cold a year for 100+ years before you were immune to them all. I can verify this -- I visited Russia a lot over a period of 5+ years. Whenever I went there initially I always got sick. But after several years I was able to go to Russia and return without that occuring. I presume this was because I gradually built up an immunity to all of the rhinovirus serotypes found in Russia but not in the U.S.

          Rhinoviruses do change over time but they do it by recombination (swapping genome fragments) to create new serotypes not by using sloppy replication. It should be kept in mind that viral replication (of non-DNA viruses) involves very simple replication strategy. The viruses do not have at their disposal all of the repair proteins (120+) that are found in mammalian DNA replication & repair. So their genomes will vary somewhat over time -- but not vary *that* significantly because a successful virus wants to make more successful (identical) viruses.

          Influenza (flu) on the other hand is a multi-chromosome virus -- it evolves by swapping chromosomes with influenza coming from other species -- human flu usually varies due to recombination of chromosomes between human, chicken/duck and pig influenza variants (commonly kept in close proximity in China).

          It is only retroviruses (e.g. HIV) that have a really sloppy replication protein and mutate at a very high rate.

          [This is based on my training in microbiology as well as some quick checks in "Fields Virology".]

    • Good points: anything that we design that is made of protein could be countered by our immune response.

      After all the point of having a lot of different kinds of Major Histocompatibility Complex alleles in the population is that somebody in the population will have the right combination of MHC genes to be a responder to an arbitary infection and so survive to breed.

      There's another way to fix this, and Eric Drexler proposed it for nanomachines in Engines of Creation: Wrap the fabrication facility in a blan
      • Re:Defenses (Score:4, Informative)

        by Frank T. Lofaro Jr. ( 142215 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:02PM (#9643271) Homepage

        After all the point of having a lot of different kinds of Major Histocompatibility Complex alleles in the population is that somebody in the population will have the right combination of MHC genes to be a responder to an arbitary infection and so survive to breed.

        The flip side of this is that many people are prone to getting autoimmune disease as a consequence of getting certain infections. Crohn's disease is likely triggered by a bacteria. []

        Certain HLA antigens are bad to have. Such as HLA B27 [] which makes one a sitting duck for autoimmune disease. People with that can get Reiter's syndrome [] (a form of autoimmune arthritis) from something as simple as food poisoning. As bad as HLA B27 sounds, it is likely to provide protection against something, much like sickle cell trait protects against malaria.

        Biological diversity means there is less likelyhood of a large scale wipeout of the population, but also that there will be many people who get diseases due to things like having a bad HLA antigen (such as B27).

        Any protection from viruses that HLA antigens could provide likely could be circumvented, as HLA antigens are not secret at all. They are use in diagnosing autoimmune disease, matching organ transplants, etc.

        It is roughly equivalent to a computer virus writer having access to all the patterns that an anti-virus program is designed to detect.

        • The flip side of this is that many people are prone to getting autoimmune disease as a consequence of getting certain infections. Crohn's disease is likely triggered by a bacteria.

          So, once we get a bit better at this, what's to stop us from engineering a better immune system? It'd be pretty nice to be able to recognize that a particular allergic response is unnecessary and suppress it with no more effort than it takes to breathe.

    • by k98sven ( 324383 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:43PM (#9643785) Journal
      The creation of tools to make bio-machines similar to verilog/VHDL would indeed potentially have grave consequences, but I can't see it going any other way.

      If all you have is a hammer..

      Sorry, but this analogy is weird. Biology does NOT follow any simple rules of logic. In fact, we don't even know the rules.

      A DNA sequence maps to an amino acid sequence, we've got that part pretty well figured out.
      The AA sequence maps to a protein or peptide. Right there, we're screwed. There is no ab initio method which accurately predicts protein folding. There are no reliable empirical methods either.

      You can't really rely on existing structures for predicting new ones either; Even a single mutation can give you a completely different structure. (Compare an ordinary hemoglobin to a sickle-cell mutated one)

      Ok, but just assume we can find out the structure, how do you determine the function of that protein?
      Again, there is no method of doing that. There is an entire world of chemistry which can go on. And in the enzymes for which we know the structure and function, there are a huge number in which we still do not know the mechanism. If chemistry was easily predictable, there would be far less for chemists to do!

      Given you know the function of a single enzyme, can you predict how it will interact in a complex biological system with millions of other proteins, organic substances and whatnot?

      There is no room for making the kind of abstractions which are done in the world of computers and engineering. Things are far more complex, and what is worse, they are not self-contained.
  • by macklin01 ( 760841 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:13AM (#9642617) Homepage
    On the one hand, that's the inherent risk with any technology as it becomes increasingly accessible and "user-friendly".

    On the other hand, are these systems going to be cheap enough that we have to worry about script kiddies? If computers still cost $5000+, I doubt script kiddies would be such a rampant problem on the net. -- Paul
    • How much does it cost to connect medical grade solenoid valves and pumps to a serial port of a PC?
    • by Choco-man ( 256940 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:20PM (#9643478)
      I could weaponize anthrax for $25,000. The US gov't did a study a few years ago indicating that for less than the price of a new car and using off the shelf equipment, one could manufacture enough bio agent to do very significant damage, in a space the size of one's bedroom.

      The question isn't will it be cheap enough for everyone to have the ability to do it. It's will it be cheap enough for the crazies to do it, as well as what are the implications of doing it (by crazies or by well thought out researchers).

      You better believe that if the crazies could inflict this type of damage for $5000 they'd do it in a heartbeat.
    • On the third hand, if systems become cheap enough, and they will become sooner or later, the white hats will afford them too. We may get enhanced germs, but also enhanced++ immune systems.

      What I really fear is government regulation on the technology. We saw in 2001 how someone apparently can produce and release "weaponized" anthrax without getting caught. That person obviously had access to some kind of facility that's out of bounds for the normal hacker. I would feel much safer if I could at least have th

  • by Apocalypse111 ( 597674 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:14AM (#9642632) Journal
    Finally, my dream of having a large-breasted subservient cat-girl sex-drone can be a reality!

    Maybe I'm sharing too much with you people...
  • teen-age biohackers

    "yeah, man, last week i hacked into my parents genome while they were sleeping. dude, there's some fucked up shit there. did you know my mom once had the clap?"

    "dude, that's nothing. i hacked professor katz the other day. dude, that guy has had *everything*"

  • pwn3d! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Zorilla ( 791636 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:16AM (#9642657)
    You got pwn3d! Now you have two cocks!

    Great, the world gets better every day.
    • Re:pwn3d! (Score:3, Funny)

      by proj_2501 ( 78149 )
      i don't think that would be as big a problem as say, four asses
  • by DamonHD ( 794830 ) <> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:18AM (#9642683) Homepage
    Many years ago I did some work in a genetics lab and made some recombinants (variations on the E.coli pCNB plasmid FWIW), and accidentally swallowed a billion or so of one of them (but that's a different story B^>).

    The point was that it was slow, laborious work with lots of hardware support (agar, incubators, restriction enzymes, etc) needed and a danger of getting various sorts of stuff on yourself. And we're still (sadly) profoundly ignorant of what really makes bugs tick...

    So the first DNA-script-kiddie is still as far off as the nanotech grey-goo horror IMHO.

    • I did simple genetic recombination in a highschool lab. Of course, I had a little help from the proclivities of E. coli...

      in any case, not so hard

      • There's a big difference between that fun expreiment of changing F- E.Coli into F+ where the bacteria help you to infect them with the plasmid in question, to making your own plasmid of arbitary sequence, putting it into the bacteria, screening them to see if your plasmid took, checking if they have the properties you want...
    • Maybe it's far off but how long ago was it that computers were just starting to be used and required vast amounts of storage space and money? It's only by ~40-50 years man, if the same rapid development in technology comes about with this it could happen in your lifetime.

      That is of course assuming rapid technological advancement...But even so it could still happen in future generations. Remember: you don't inherit the Earth from your parents but borrow it from your children.
    • You SWALLOWED your bugs? That makes me feel a lot better about my lab accidents.

      The thing is, though, that these blocks make that whole process a lot easier. You can make LB & agar plates with stuff in the grocery store. Incubators can be made or bought with no difficulty, electrophoresis boxes can be rigged up with stuff from the hardware store. The restriction enzymes are a bit expensive, but anyone can call up NEB or Promega and buy some with a credit card, and have it sent to their home (I've done

  • by RancidLM ( 723035 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:18AM (#9642694)
    Person:"WOW is that a New ARM!" Me:" YA.. this new version of PHP Rocks"
  • I have some links here on Trufen [] about using virii that reduce the effects of illegal drugs.
  • "BTD's" as well as STD's
  • I would think that there is a simple formula... #1. Someone figures out how to do something #2. Someone does it better #3. People kill each other Anytime you create a technology that is powerful, it will get abused. duh
    • I would think that there is a simple formula... #1. Someone figures out how to do something #2. Someone does it better #3. People kill each other

      You forgot #4: Someone says, "Big deal, this isn't new."

  • If it was so easy... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kabocox ( 199019 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:22AM (#9642754)
    If it was so much easier than building nuclear bombs, why haven't we gone alot father in that field than we have?

    I agree once you have a virus or some time of self spreading destructive agent, it is easier to spread than tradional bombs. Building tailored geneic machines will be like every other process. It won't be very profitable until some big break through makes it cheaper for certain apps. Then we'd carelessly use the tech for 5-10 years without any problems then one day we'd have an accident and the news folks would be all over it. There would be all sorts of safe guards so that nothing like that could happen again. Every six months or so their would be a new special report about how that tech could have been better managed and what not.
    • Because the techonology and techniques are all recently developed. Just because something is old, doesn't mean it's not monumentally complicated. Much of the US's most amazing engineering happened from the 40's through the 60's. Much of what we do now is simple by comparison.
  • Prey (Score:5, Interesting)

    by techstar25 ( 556988 ) <> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:22AM (#9642759) Journal
    Reminds me of a book I just finished, Prey, by Micheal Crichton. I that book he brings up the issue of "hackers" releasing a biological virus created using nanotechnology that would behave like a computer virus, attacking people and self-replicating. If you think Microsoft is slow to release patches, imagine how long it would take the CDC to immunize everybody from a brand new man-made virus. Interesting stuff...good book, by the way. Better than Jurassic Park.
    • By Margaret Atwood.

      Good story about a group of biohackers building a new future. Lots of "eat your face off" viruses. And blue penises.

    • Re:Prey (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @02:11PM (#9644818) Journal
      Reminds me of a book I just finished, Prey, by Micheal Crichton. I that book he brings up the issue of "hackers" releasing a biological virus created using nanotechnology that would behave like a computer virus, attacking people and self-replicating.

      It's a clever concept, but man does Crichton's execution suck. His earlier work is vastly superior, both from a technical standpoint, and from the standpoint of quality of writing. Jurassic Park had a few plot holes, but he's been getting sloppier ever since. He's also abandoned any concern for scientific credibility.

      Prey demonstrates ignorance in roughly equal parts of the details of biology, physics, chemistry, and computer science.

      He's just banging out books as fast as he can in hope that another one gets bought by a movie studio.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:22AM (#9642760)
    This kind of threat is why the Europeans are so freaked out by GMO foods. In any event, genetic engineering will change our lives in ways that we can't predict. Life today is quite different from what the futurists were predicting in the 1950's. Just go down to the library and drag out some old editions of Popular Science.

    Creating mass havoc is usually harder than it looks. Consider the terrorists that used nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. If you had asked me, I would have guessed that letting off nerve gas in such a location would have killed thousands. It didn't quite work that way. I don't think we have to worry about bio-hackers for a long time.
    • Score one for Europe! Who the fuck wants to find out if monsanto (the most evil company in the world, literally) has been responsible with GMOs by dying? You know they've poisioned whole counties in the US, right?
      • Poisoned? Reference please.

        They released some grain that could potentially cause a severe allergic reaction in a small portion of the people sensitive to it, but that is not poisoning. IIRC, it never reached the general population anyway, due to filter controls.

        Worse accidental releases of antigen like that have happened with spills at grain processing plants. Tainted meat is more dangerous than the stuff released in those scares, and people take those in stride now.

        DISCLAIMER: I don't like monsato. If you

    • The sarin gas they used isn't an alive, self replicating, evoluting organism, isn't it? Imagine the possibilities. Like '28 days later'.
    • by Vagary ( 21383 ) <> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @01:40PM (#9644461) Journal
      Forget biological WMDs, we have been under attack by chemical WMDs for decades. GMO food is the only reasonable* way to reduce pesticide use, which is actually causing health problems right now, as opposed to the vague danger of GMOs. Ingestion of weird DNA does nothing but entertain your stomach acids, so the only potential health threat is that GMOs may produce weird chemicals -- but surely they won't be as bad as the franken-pollutents in our environment right now!

      * I'd like to believe the claims that organic food can feed the world, but it's an extraordinary claim and I have yet to see even weak evidence.
  • Seriously. Tell them it's 1337 and they'll be famous. After a little while... no more script kiddies.
  • I know it's therapeutic to attribute "Pure Evil" to script kiddies, but come on now.. It's one thing to cause mass mayhem on the internet.. quite another to cause mass murder. I'd be really surprised if script kiddies had that kind of carnage in them... Especially when they wouldn't be able to protect themselves from their own creation.

    I'd be much more worried about the non-hacker, well funded, professional genetic researcher.

    • > I'd be much more worried about the non-hacker, well funded, professional genetic researcher.

      Speaking of which, does anyone remember the rumored biowarfare projects from South Africa during the apartheid years? The genome hadn't been mapped at the time, and they didn't have the technology to go that far, but if the apartheid system had survived until today, I wonder how far they'd have gotten.

      (For anyone who doesn't remember the rumors: Yes, the project was the obvious one.)

  • by spacerodent ( 790183 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:44AM (#9643013)
    While on the surface it may seem possible to do all this in the next 20-30 years hte author seems to be forgetting all the equipment needed to handle and work with these type of organisms. As these are not typical consumer goods I wouldn't expect to see the prices come down like computer components either. I have no doubt a few cases will occur but it certainly won't be like with computer virsues where all you need is a computer and a compiler of some kind.
  • The article states "Biological synthesis becomes fairly easy once the basic building blocks -- the oligonucleotides -- have been built, so the regulation of the whole process could be centered on licensing and tracking them."

    And this has worked soooo well in preventing virii in the computing world (can you say Microsoft?).

    The article goes on to say Tom Knight, who directs MIT's BioBrick wet lab in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "There is an opportunity here because the oligo

  • Burt -

    No offense, but could you hurry up some? I need to get away from our gene pool because someone is about to piss in it.

    I figure living on the moon is my best protection, so the sooner we get cheap spaceflight, the better.

    Chip H.
  • I realized this by myself at least 10 years ago thinking about computer virus and genetic advances. I don't remember now but there must be much older examples in SCIFI. I remember a Star Trek NG episode where a cure for a cold accidentally mutated the entire crew.
    • Maybe you didn't catch the Wired article a week or so back:,1286,64040,0 0. html?tw=wn_6culthead

      I have to say, messing with biology is to my mind not the sort of thing I can see teenager doing in their bedrooms though.
      • Why not? Not as we do it know but I can see in a few years some chemical kit that you can connect to your computer and some kind off high level language or graphical tool to instruct it. The key problem is understanding how DNA works. I imagine it's at machine code level and that we will be able to define abstract constructs to simplify it's understanding. Then you only need to enhance the manipulation technology and you get a Home DNA Maker Kit for Kids 12+.
  • It seems that one can only view the first page of the article. Clicking on the link at the bottom that should take one to the second page of the article results in the message that the article requested cannot be accessed, and clicking on "Print Article" from the first page only results in a completely blank page.

    Although it might just be a Mozilla thing... that would make me even more irate... people that produce web content that only works in IE should be hurt... badly, IMO.

  • I got news for ya: It's already happened!

    This guy at Vanderbilt Univ (I'll spare him the /. effect and keep his name anonymous) works on coronavirus, ie SARS, and has been working to creat a vaccine. The only problem, is that his vaccines frequently create worse diseases. Don't worry, these were all animal models with strains somewhat harmless to humans. I went to lecture by this guy on the problems of combatting SARS where he freely admitted that it didn't look a vaccine was going to be easy or quick to d

  • Promote Diversity (Score:4, Insightful)

    by blueZhift ( 652272 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:20PM (#9643480) Homepage Journal
    The danger posed by the relative ease of engineering new biological agents makes a strong argument for promoting genomic diversity in human beings. It is this diversity that makes it less likely that any particularly nasty bug is going to wipe out the human race. And indeed, this diversity often gives us clues to eventual cures for various diseases.

    Unfortunately, people often want the same thing or whatever is popular in the media. With genetic engineering, we could see a reduction in genomic variability as parents decide they want designer babies. We're already seeing an imbalance in the male to female ratio as sex selection becomes more and more viable an option.

    So dear /.ers, what can you do about this? Well, hmmm, MATE WITH SOMEONE DIFFERENT TODAY! Oops, forgot where I was, nevermind...

  • How about an apple with THC in it? Or say, maybe dandelions of lawn grass?
  • Twelve Monkeys (Score:5, Informative)

    by Baldrson ( 78598 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:25PM (#9643546) Homepage Journal
    A Harvard genetics professor says...

    Looking at the picture of Prof. George Church -- the aforementioned Harvard geneticist [], one is struck by the resemblance with the guy Terry Gilliam cast as the "environmentalist" genetic engineer synthesized a pathogen to kill all humans in The Twelve Monkeys [].

    George Church is probably one of the least likely geneticists to hop on a world-wide jet tour to deliver a misanthropic virus he's synthesized.

    The problem with all this isn't so much the creation of new, deadly pandemics -- nature does a good enough job of that. The real problem is the way amplification of international transport has been behind almost every major pandemic from the Plague which followed on the heels of the Mongol Empire's wide stretch [] -- to the pandemic of the first World War [].

    Globalization has already given us the AIDS [] epidemic and the SARS scare []. It may have given us autism's recent explosive growth [] and a lot more we don't even know about.

    No one is being held liable for this increased risk imposed on an unaware population -- this despite the fact even identifiable corporations have externalized the costs of their risk-taking on the public and walked away with higher corporate profits as a result. Not even Ralph Nader has guts to touch this.

  • I'm no right wing ideologue or luddite, but I can't imagine why anyone thinks genetic engineering is really a good idea.

    Two main propositions inform my views on this:

    1 - a biological agent is by definition alive and able to reproduce. If someone creates something bad, you can't just wait for its half-life for it to degrade. Its out there making new copies of itself.

    2 - it took billions of years and all the fine tuning that follows with that to get where we are today. What makes anyone think, we'll be
  • Our bodies can take care of themselves. We've had tens of thousands of years to develop an amazing immune system. Bio-weapons won't end up killing a significant portion of the population. (Unless you're dead, then I suppose it's significant to you.)

    Weaponized smallpox was released from a Soviet lab in the 80s. Only 17 people died. SARS killed about 200 people worldwide IIRC. By comparison, almost 3000 people die in the US every year from toilet-related injuries; 20 000 children worldwide starve to death ev
    • I agree with your principles, however the following technical information is incorrect:

      Alanine is very small as far as molecules go; it's one of the 4 key blocks for DNA

      Alanine (which _is_ a simple molecule) is one of the 21 most common amino acids used to make peptides, enzymes, and proteins.

      You were thinking of Adenine (which is _not_ a simple molecule) which is one of the four DNA base pairs. Every sequence of three DNA bases translates into one amino acid at the ribosome.
  • by Wardish ( 699865 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:42PM (#9643770) Journal
    If you've seen some of my prior writings you may already know my opinions, as always I encourage replies and responses here or in private email, and if anyone believes this is a troll feel free to mark it and/or say so.

    In short:
    I think there are basically 2 competing concepts on how to handle this and similar problems.
    1. Heavily limit access to information, research, and experimentation.
    2. Free and open access to information, active support for open research and experimentation.

    I believe:
    The danger from nano/bio technologies is real.
    The dangerous time extends from now until the technology is mature.
    Restrictions to slow or halt this technology increases the danger period.
    Terrorist types are actively pursuing this technology.
    Terrorists gain more from increased time than from access to open research.
    Restrictions reduce the pool of skills and ideas available to deal with the danger.

    In more detail:
    As the subject line suggests, I don't believe we can shove this back in the box. In addition I don't believe that trying to limit or control the technology and it's distribution is going to be successful. While that process was affective (debatably as to how effective though) in limiting nuclear technology IMO because nuclear technologies require a large and very specialized heavy industrial base which in turn also required budgets that limited serious work to national sized organizations.

    This isn't true for bio/nano tech. Much of this work can and is being done on budgets that are easily in the realm of small companies, and even many individuals. Certainly within the grasp of those organizations we fear will be using it to harm us.

    Simply put, I believe that the knowledge is out there already. I believe that the more organized terrorist type groups are likely already pursuing these technologies actively.

    Now, if we pursue a path of limiting knowledge the results as I see them are 2 fold. 1. We will slow development of bio/nano malware (malevolent hard/soft/squishy ware) that the terrorist types are undoubtedly already working on. 2. We will stop development in all but a few officially sanctioned arena's. We will reduce by orders of magnitude the number of people who are skilled in working with these technologies. Additionally we will slow by a huge degree the overall advance of these technologies.

    I'm in agreement with those who believe that these technologies are extremely dangerous. My personal belief is we, as a intelligent species, have approximately a 40% chance of surviving the next 50 years. Where I disagree with many is that I believe those odds get much worse if we try to put heavy limits on knowledge, research, and experimentation. I believe that the more open and openly supported this technology is the more the odds improve.

    My reasoning is based on the following. I believe that if we start restricting knowledge dissemination, research, and experimentation then we will lose most of those who would have the skills, knowledge, and ideas that will be required to defend against bio/nano malware that will be released sooner or later. I don't think that any amount or level of restriction will stop organizations that are intent on using this to harm others. My belief is that all it will accomplish is to slow the development and ensure that the process's that are used by those working on malware are unique and only understood by the malware creators.

    In addition I believe that the danger is limited to the short period of time before this technology matures. I believe that giving malware developers more time is much more dangerous than the advantage they would get from open knowledge sources. The basis for this is my belief that a mature bio/nano technology will provide both personal and environmental monitors and defenses that will reduce the danger to a minimal scope and severity.

  • The brains of Hosaka's best research people. Plague, he was whispering, my businessman, plague and fever and death....

    Someone had reprogrammed the DNA synthesizer, he said. The thing was there for the overnight construction of just the right macromolecule. With its in-built computer and its custom software. Expensive, Sandii. But not as expensive as you turned out to be for Hosaka.

    I hope you got a good price from Maas.

    The diskette in my hand. Rain on the river. I knew, but I couldn't face it. I put th

  • by hung_himself ( 774451 ) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:50PM (#9643873)
    Genetics is neither quick nor easy even if you know what you are doing and have lots of time and resources. There is essentially no hope of anything with a complicated set of changes surviving let alone do what you want it to do. That's why modifications are basically one gene at time - mostly one mutation at a time.

    The hacker analogy is having a billion lines of disassembled code which you barely understand. Random changes are just going to cause the program to crash. Geneticists basically only know the NOP command (ah those were the days using MACSBUG...). If you know where the branch point for a key subroutine was you might be able to shut it down or have it run another subroutine but that is still very difficult to do without crashing everything. Changing it to do something completely different is very very difficult since you really have no idea what the code does. Add to that the fact that you need a lab and weeks or months to introduce your changes and you can appreciate how far-fetched these fears of amateur bio-hackers are.

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.