DIY genetics – or how I learned to stop worrying and love the DNA

Do It Yourself genetics is an emerging field. Say what? Check the video below:

 

There are extensive guides and kits that you can buy online that give you the tools to modify among other things bacteria. Cool, so what? Well, not everyone is excited.

Freedom of information poses many questions, and the best way to answer such questions is to do a risk to benefit analysis. Make a mental scale and put all the good things in one cup, and all the bad things in another. Then you can decide which way the scale actually tips. Interestingly, we live in times were such weigh-ins are being forced upon us more and more. Never before did we have to make decisions on the boundaries of research (or for that matter the ability for true and complete anonymity in both expression and money transfer). Not on this scale at least. Like what? Like this:

Is it OK to publish the genetic information sequenced from a cell culture that was seeded from an identified, and unwilling donor? This ethical dilemma is not hypothetical. Henrietta Lachs gave a tissue biopsy sample in the ’50s that was used to create the immortal HeLa cell line widely used today. Imagine if you knew that your grandmothers cells are still live? And imagine when people start sequencing the genome of those cells!

OK, that is a headache. What about publishing information on what makes a very dangerous flu virus more contagious? Again, real dilemma, not hypothetical. In 2012, two independent groups studied exactly what DNA sequence makes a flu virus become more contagious. Why on earth did they do this? Understanding the mechanism behind flu transmission could potentially give us hints on how to develop better treatments. Could.

Ok, that is almost a migraine. What about the title of this post? There are widely available tools, and information to manipulate the genome of living things. Check out biobricks. I think this is an amazing project! It is an organization that spreads the tools for making useful synthetic biology systems (i.e. biological “devices” that perform useful work for us). What is fascinating about the biobrics approach is that it treats DNA manipulation as a computer programming language. You can theoretically (and practically) create logical networks of sensors that give a signal (light or smell) when things are detected (explosives, pollutants or drugs). But is it really wise to put these tools in the hands of the unsupervised public?

So lets weight the pros and cons of DIY biotechnology:

First (because I like bad news first), the risks: bioterrorism and accidents (check out the theoretical and tangential grey goo). Or imagine a white supremacy group creating viruses specific to people of a certain race? How about a modifying a nitrogen binding bacterium to increase crop yields leading to damaging all plant life?

Could any pros counter those cons? Increasing scientific interest in the general public is no small feat or accomplishment. A well informed public is the cornerstone of a functioning society. Not to mention that a well informed public will give me more money! (or at least for my research). Further, don’t forget that many scientists were actually self taught.

Where do I stand? I think I am a bit of a technology optimist. Innovation and disruption come from unknown and unexpected places. So go for it people!

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