Nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that.

Andrew Hessel in MungBeing Magazine, quoted (approvingly, to my astonishment) by Jonathan Eisen:

Twenty five years ago, kids flocked to computers, pushing the limits of what they could do. Similarly, the next generation of genetic engineers won’t need laboratories or even PhD: they’ll have laptops, cheap mail order DNA synthesis, and, thanks to Google and Wikipedia and open journals like PLOS Biology, access to mountains of free biological data. They’ll work in basements, garages, and cafes, and they’ll trade ideas and collaborate on genetic designs the same way open source programmers now write computer code. Keep in mind that it was only 30 years ago that a little company called Apple started out of a California garage.

Which reminds me of Freeman Dyson in the NYRB a while back:

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Most of that is, in my opinion, complete and utter bollocks.
Despite the attractive and often useful analogy, genomes are not really software, and bio-tinkering is nothing like coding. It takes a lot more time and equipment, for one thing. There’s a reason you don’t see many people building jet airplanes for fun. When is “cheap DNA synthesis” going to be available to the general public? Who is going to sell J. Random Teenager a PCR machine? Don’t wave your hands and airily declaim that everything is possible and it’s someone else’s job to make it work (as Dyson did while he was flogging his book in the NYRB): describe for me the business model. Sure, in theory you can do those experiments in your kitchen — but have you ever actually tried it? Take it from someone who does them for a living, you don’t have the patience to make it work. No one does. It’s one thing to hack away at a piece of code until it runs the way you want; it’s quite another to “hack” something in which every change requires several weeks’ worth of complex and time-consuming manipulations, to say nothing of a generation or ten.
And then there’s regulatory oversight. We let people hack away at computers as much as they can stand, but a computer is not a living thing. It’s not cruelty if you get mad at your linux box and pound it into flinders. Those pigeons and lizards and parrots and cats are not toys; they can suffer, and if you let Joe Public futz with their genomes they will — horribly. (I happen to think a good percentage of pet breeders are scum, too. What kind of despicable arrogance is required to manipulate a living genome for nothing more than your own twisted aesthetic pleasure? You people with the dogs and cats whose faces are so squished they can barely breathe — you’re sick.)
Further to the question of oversight, let’s think about consequences. You’ve seen computer viruses: think about a world in which Kevin Mitnick meets Dylan Klebold at a smallpox swap-meet. How do you like your brave new world of garage biology now? And that’s just the potential for malicious success — the dangers of stupidity and failure loom considerably greater. Get your syntax wrong or wire your motherboard the wrong way around and, well, nothing much happens. Fuck up a genome, though, and see how you like the result — especially if it survives.
The Hessel/Dyson version of our biotech future is not going come into being. Not in a decade, not in a millennium, not ever. Quite apart from its being about as likely in practical terms as me learning to fly by flapping my arms, we — as a society — will not let it happen. Not if we have any bloody sense at all.

9 thoughts on “Nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that.

  1. A little add on. I think genome engineering has great potential. But unregulated hacking in people’s garages with genomes is a future I am not enthusiastic about. And the path we are on in terms of pet breeding bodes really poorly for this (I wrote about this previously here ). This is why if all else is equal, people should focus on doing work on bacteria and even then, they should use strains that have been functionally crippled (e.g., using alternative genetic codes) such that they cannot breed with normal organsms.

  2. I think we all agree that animal cruelty sux (which by the way sounds like a vote for veganism).
    This still leaves plants and “lower” organisms (I know this isn’t a PC statement in bio world since slime molds have proven to be wonderfully complext and interesting).
    I have little doubt that hardware expense is really a barrier. PCR machines aren’t really any fancier than high-end carpentry equipment or more expensive than a clay-potter’s kiln. They amortize the expense over years and establish co-ops to cover the expense.
    I also have little doubt that patience is a barrier. Cross-stitching a quilt can take years, but this doesn’t stop my grandmother from cranking one out for every grandchild (I’m sure there are better examples).
    It sounds like your real concerns are safety. Are there any circumstances where bio-hacking might be safe or worthwhile in your opinion? Are there no possible scenarios where a bio-hacking hobby might be safe?

  3. I think there’s a bit of wishful thinking there. The boundaries of reality are pushed by the people who are driven, not the people who philosophise about ethics unfortunately.
    What do you think hobby mouse breeders are working towards now?
    Or people like these who want to push bio-diesel further, crossing from environmentalist hobbyist to garage business…
    There will always be people who don’t see the ethics of this the way you do. A review article in Environmental Politics a few years back describes that well too.
    Dobson, Andrew (2004) ‘Genetic Engineering: Pigoons and
    ChickieNobs on the Other Side of ‘Enough”, Environmental Politics, 13:3, 642 – 649
    To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/0964401042000229070
    It might not be fully feasible in the garage now, but maybe bits of it are. Design in-silico, then farm out to a gene-shop in a money hungry country. Combine the outsourcing used by students here (click on the text to zoom in)
    with the people who supplied the fish here
    as a service and see who bites. Try putting up a website for example with early adopter prices and a comprehensive form regarding their intended requirements and see what information you could farm… It would be easy to make something like that look real enough too. There are lots of companies working on the gear:
    Remember that the early computers weren’t just about software hacking, but also hardware. There was quite a bit of money spent, and people these days get circuit boards printed elsewhere too to build more advanced gear. When stuff doesn’t work, you have to start again with investment, and things can not just crash waiting for a reboot, but actually be unusable afterwards.
    I think the question isn’t if but when. The answer is … already. ( seems to be down, but hey, this is the internet and we take snapshots*/ )
    Therefore the deeper question is … what do we do about it?
    Regulation is one technique, as mentioned here
    as is education by people like you who know this stuff inside out. And I know I’m arguing with you here about something you know better than me 🙂 but I guess given that it’s compared to the IT industry, I do have some insights into it from that angle…

  4. Ralf, thanks for the detailed response. It deserves a proper reply, which I will get to, but just to grab the first of your links: Jax Labs are most emphatically not hobbyists! Whatever the hobbyists are doing, it doesn’t involve direct manipulation of the genome. That’s not something you can do without a lot of experience and a lot of equipment. Hell, there are a lot of professional biomed labs who have to outsource their mouse genetics because they don’t have the requisite expertise in-house. No reputable scientist would be part of any “hobby” project… of course, there are plenty of disreputable ones…
    As for knowing more than you, I know a bit more about the lab work. I’m Joe Public just like anyone when it comes to the larger questions of ethics, opportunity and so forth that we’re discussing here. Scientists are all too prone to see themselves as experts on everything, don’t encourage me into that trap!

  5. I’m a chemist. I know better than to start any ‘hobby’ chemistry in my shed. The fuzz would be on me in 5 minutes no matter how innocent. I have done only basic molecular biology, but I wonder if the feds would put up with any lab equipment in someone’s garage or basement without the presumption that they were cooking meth or something.

  6. where’s the business model? are you kidding? the first couple of areas are going to be muscular strength and endurance enhancements for sports and, oh for recent news value, dog fighting. think BALCO/roids and Operation Puerto.
    and as far as the kitchen sink goes, sure, this won’t be the starting point. but just like the designer drug story, a lot of clandestine work in academic labs will lead the way.
    oh, and we’ve already established we have no bloody sense…

  7. I am totally with you, including the judgement on animal breeders.
    And I totally agree about the likelihood of ‘garage molbio’ ever happening. Wasn’t there even a recent blog posting somewhere that people in the US are not even allowed to aquire beakers and other harmless lab equipment?

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