The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

The Bio-Hacker Next Door

An AP story that appeared in today’s Arizona Daily Star focuses on those who play with DNA at home.  We are to the point where hobbyists have the knowledge to use off the shelf equipment to start playing around at home and creating life with new genes and properties.  One example is a woman who is trying to create yogurt bacteria which glow green when exposed to melamine.

I am sure most people who do this are well intentioned, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the some potential nasty side effects.  The law of unintended consequences could come into play quickly.  The unlikely but frightening scenario is someone accidentally (or intentionally) creates an easily transmittable deadly bacteria.  What if the yougurt bacteria works at its assigned task of glowing in melamine, but causes human health effects?  Say someone is working on genetically modified crops and the pollen gets out in the wild, altering crops of nearby fields?  The potential economic cost is huge and the person probably would have substantial liability.

This is a particularly difficult activity to regulate.  Scientific journals publish enough details for skilled amateurs to recreate and advance a lot of work.  These journals are readily available either through subscription or university libraries.  The equipment is not expensive and easy to obtain.

This is not really my field so I am not sure how large the threat and potential benefits really are.  Perhaps even more worrying, I am not sure there is anything that can really be done except educate the bio-hackers as much as we can about safety and ethics in their research.

December 26, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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