Remember the early days of personal computing and the internet? College dropouts tinkering with new technology in their garages. Continuous debate about standards. Scruffy innovators leading startup enterprises. Disdain for the old way of doing business. And everywhere the conviction that whatever came of the latest technological revolution, it was bound to be good for mankind.
It turns out the visionaries were only half right. They under-estimated the bad things that might be made possible by their breakthroughs, from malicious software to identity theft to a world awash in pornography. That’s the problem with the democratization of science and technology — it empowers everybody.
I thought about that when I read an article in the October 7 issue of Nature entitled “Life hackers” about the emergence of garage micro-biology. The article describes how the growing availability of inexpensive biotechnology has enabled amateurs to do things like gene-splicing at home. As a leader of the movement remarked in the piece, “The predominant thought about biology used to be that it was expensive and hard. And it’s still hard. It’s just not so expensive.”
This same proponent of garage biology projected in 2003 that the cost of lab equipment for sequencing and synthesizing DNA would fall in a manner not unlike the way Moore’s Law describes the decreasing cost of microprocessor computing power. A graphic accompanying the article helpfully illustrates how a rudimentary biotech lab can be equipped at very reasonable prices — $250-$2000 for an autoclave, $60-$850 for a microcentrifuge, $100-$800 for an incubator.
No double about it, the era of do-it-yourself biology has arrived. One group founded on the doorstep of MIT in 2008 with only 25 participants now has over 2,000 people on its mailing list. Isn’t that encouraging? How can this not lead to great things for mankind as more and more people learn how to contribute to the advancement of the life sciences from the comfort of their basements and garages?
Problem is, I just can’t stop thinking about the Spanish influenza. You know, that epidemic in 1918 that wiped out more people around the world in one year than the Great War had in four. The one that struck down not just the most vulnerable victims, but young adults in the prime of their lives.
That strain of flu apparently resulted from the spontaneous splicing together of two pre-existing strains into a new form for which humans had no built-up immunity, no resistance. So it killed a million people a week for months on end. If such lethal recombinations of microrganisms can occur without human intervention, what pathogens might be devised by people with home labs? Especially once they lay their hands on some of the biotechnology readily available on E-Bay?
This sounds like it could give new meaning to the phrase, “global terrorism.” It probably won’t produce a smart-bomb virus that can be used to take out precise targets, but as a generator of widespread death and hysteria, it sure sounds promising. Like I said, that’s the big problem with the democratization of science and technology — it empowers everybody.
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