Thursday, May 09, 2013

Gene Hackers

The New York Times reports that a group of hobbyist-scientists is working on developing trees that glow in the dark.  They are working in a laboratory in Silicon Valley named BioCurious, which describes itself as a "hackerspace for biotech."

The Agriculture Department regulates genetically engineered plants under a law designed to regulate plant pests, and they have told BioCurious that they will not need approval to create these trees, because they are not plant pests and are not made using plant pests.

BioCurious has raised over $250,000 from 4,500 donors on to support this project, and they plan to give the seeds to many of the donors when they are ready.

Of course, this project shows how grossly inadequate the laws regulating genetic engineering are.  This project or similar projects could have unintended side effects that could be very destructive.

There has already been a case where corn was genetically engineered to produce drugs for pigs. The pollen spread and contaminated conventional corn. Hundreds of acres of corn had to be destroyed to prevent this pharmaceutical corn from spreading further.  If it had not been destroyed, it would have continued to spread and would ultimately have made corn unusable as a food.

If we imagine thousands of hobbyists doing this sort of project in the future, it seems inevitable that some will have this sort of destructive side effect.  If they give away the seeds to thousands of people, it is unlikely that we will be able to stop the destructive crop from spreading.

If this sort of hobbyist genetic engineering becomes common, it also seems inevitable that malicious or mentally ill hobbyists will deliberately create destructive organisms, such as more virulent diseases and super weeds, just as malicious or mentally ill computer hackers deliberately create and spread computer viruses.

Our regulation of genetically modified organisms is woefully inadequate, because it does not adequately consider their environmental effects.   They are potentially much more dangerous than toxic chemicals, for example, because once organisms are released into the environment, they can multiply and spread endlessly.

This group of hobbyists is creating the new organism by using software that allows you to design new DNA sequences and then sending the design to a foundry that synthesizes the DNA.  It seems unlikely that we can find and regulate hobbyists, but it should be possible to regulate foundries and prevent them from synthesizing DNA without a thorough study showing that it will not have a destructive environmental impact.

Read the Times article