Apparently the unstable portion of the population that isn’t shooting up schools and Christmas parties or quietly beating their head against the padded wall have taken an foreboding interest in science:
Amateurs are trying genetic engineering at home
SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.
Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.
In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.
“People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process,” she said.
So far, no major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody’s kitchen or garage.
But critics of the movement worry that these amateurs could one day unleash an environmental or medical disaster. Defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the garage.
Many of these amateurs may have studied biology in college but have no advanced degrees and are not earning a living in the biotechnology field. Some proudly call themselves “biohackers” — innovators who push technological boundaries and put the spread of knowledge before profits.
In Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up a community lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment, including a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80 degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria alive.
Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.
Cowell said such unfettered creativity could produce important discoveries.
“We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game,” he said.
Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in the 1970s.
She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.
Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.
“Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal location, there’s no safety process in place,” he said.
Some also fear that terrorists might attempt do-it-yourself genetic engineering. But Patterson said: “A terrorist doesn’t need to go to the DIYbio community. They can just enroll in their local community college.”
Okay, people. Let’s review the facts here.
Conducting genetic engineering in your basement never ends well. Science is neither sexy nor fun nor a game. Sure, it’s exciting when the green phosphorescent protein arrives in the mail and you have visions of winning a Nobel Prize. But I implore you, put down the test tube and reflect on what history has taught us:
- The Island of Dr. Moreau – Didn’t you see this? Admittedly, it’s borderline unbearable…but it also serves as a nice, firm warning against messing with Mother Nature.
- I Am Legend – A much better movie than the above, but a good reminder that viruses are not playthings.
- Spider Man – where did the radioactive spider come from? That’s right. Some jerk was probably cooked it up in a basement somewhere.
- Austin Powers II: The Spy Who Shagged Me – Need I remind you that Mini Me is a botched attempt to clone Dr. Evil? Probably done in Frau Farbissina’s backyard shed.
- Silence of the Lambs - A serial killer raises moths in his basement so that he can stuff the cocoons down his victims’ throats. Admittedly, this wasn’t genetic engineering, but I think it proposes an alarming chicken and the egg dilemma. Did he start raising the moths because he decided to serial kill and figured this would be a super gross little extra OR was he raising moths and realized he needed to start killing because he had too many cocoons lying around and needed a clever way to get rid of some of them? It’s a slippery slope… (and yes, I realize this is the second time in two days I’ve mentioned Silence of the Lambs.)
- Jurassic Park I, II, and III – I rest my case.
Look, if this cinematic morality play isn’t enough to convince you, let me give it to you straight: I have no desire to try the new vaccine you whipped up in your coat closet, and I will not be eating any phosporescent yogurt. I can read the expiration date just as well as the next guy. I am a tiny bit interested in the tattoos that glow in the dark, but not enough to spend the last years of my life fighting off undead, flesh eating Dark Seekers. Please, I beg of you: Take that money and invest it in something useful. Like a Bedazzler.