Saturday, October 9, 2010

Bio-hackers? Biology Is Technology: Robert H. Carlson

Robert H. Carlson has recently published a fascinating—and occasionally startling—new book, Biology is Technology. His purpose is to alert the public to the fact that biotechnology has gone farther, and is growing faster than most people realize. He provides the reader with a description of the state of the art, and discusses the numerous issues that arise, both technical and legal. He does not address what some might consider moral issues. The book is intended for a general audience, so the author must be careful not to inundate one with the molecular zoo that is biochemistry. He does a pretty good job of giving the reader just enough information to understand the subjects that he covers.

I want to discuss here one part that I found surprising, and a bit startling. Carlson begins a chapter titled “The Pace of Change in Biological Technologies” with this ominous statement.
“All I want for Christmas is my Discovery DNA Explorer Kit! With a colorful plastic centrifuge, a few bottles of simple chemicals, and a price tag of $79.95, anyone can get started manipulating DNA from any organism at hand. A further quick trip online will suffice to procure enzymes and reagents for cutting, pasting and amplifying nucleic acids. Children can now begin playing with DNA in their bedrooms, and no doubt hacking will soon follow....Those truly motivated to hack DNA could do so now by ordering the kits often used in academic or industrial labs and by compiling information from the internet. There is no mystery in extracting DNA from one organism and inserting it into another. Success simply requires a willingness to keep trying until the procedure works....Many basic laboratory routines of molecular biology have been reduced to recipes that anyone can follow.”

“Automated, commercially available instrumentation today handles an increasing fraction of laboratory tasks that were once the sole domain of doctoral-level researchers, thereby reducing labor costs and increasing productivity. This technology is gradually moving into the broader marketplace as laboratories upgrade to new equipment. Used, still very powerful instruments are finding there way into wide distribution, as any cursory tour of eBay or other online clearinghouses will reveal. Anyone can easily outfit a very functional lab for less than $5,000 with equipment that just a few years ago cost at least ten times as much.”
My first response to these statements was to fear that we had launched ourselves into some strange and fearful world where terrorists would be empowered to create any level of mischief they chose. There was yet more to come.
“....chemically synthesized DNA fragments, or oligonucleotides, can be used in DNA computation, in the fabrication of gene expression arrays (‘gene chips’), and in the creation of larger constructs for genetic manipulation. DNA for these purposes is synthesized either in the lab where it is to be used or elsewhere in a dedicated facility and delivered by express mail. Mail-order oligonucleotides were used in 2002 to build a functional poliovirus genome from constituent molecules for the first time. Since then constructs of ever-increasing length have been announced, and a full bacterial chromosome was recently synthesized from short oligos.”
This capability so far ahead of what I would have thought possible. The author claims that the technology is moving forward in a fashion consistent with the famous Moore’s Law as applied to integrated circuits.
“When the initial stage of the Human Genome Project was completed in 2001, the authors announcing the feat stated that by 2000 the total costs of sequencing had fallen by a factor of a 100 in ten years, with costs falling by a factor of 2 approximately every eighteen months. The cost of gene synthesis is falling at a similar rate.”

“Gene-length oligos are already a commodity product....However, mail order of longer organism length sequences is, thus far, rare. Commercialized methods to assemble the many millions of contiguous bases required to specify bacteria have been labor intensive and therefore expensive. Yet this barrier is certain to fall....”

“A more-recent tally of firms providing gene- and genome-length-synthesis services places the number of companies within the United States at twenty-five, with an equivalent number spread throughout the world.”

The author is well-aware that many would be troubled by these developments.
“The resulting potential for mischief or mistake is causing understandable concern—there are already public calls by scientists and politicians to restrict access to certain technologies, to regulate the direction of biological research, and to censor publication of some new techniques and data.”
The author points out that before we run off and impose all sorts of restrictions on research and technologies, we need to put everything in the true perspective. The fact that it is easy to manipulate these molecules does not mean that it is easy to accomplish exactly what one might wish to accomplish. Any terrorist who wanted to create a deadly virus would have a long and arduous and uncertain path ahead of him. In fact, we have had the most threatening terrorist of all at work constantly in the largest laboratory imaginable. Nature is experimenting continually with new bacteria and viruses with absolutely no regard for the safety of human life. We should remember that the technologies that we might wish to restrict from the garage-based terrorist are the same technologies we would need to counter a new bio-threat, whether it emerges from a garage or a jungle in Africa. What restricts the ability to create a threat also restricts the ability to counter a threat.

There is much to ponder in this fine book—and there is more to come.

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