December 5, 2010

The GFAJ-1 strain of Halomonadaceae bacteria is able to use arsenic in its internal structure, an element considered poisonous to all previously known life-forms (source)

On the heels of the last post, “Dykes, Leaks, Fingers…,” comes news of more change that’s on the way whether we’re ready for it or not– NASA’s announcement that scientists have discovered organisms that can swap phosphorus, a basic building block of life as we’ve known it on earth, for arsenic… and flourish.

It could be that arsenic-based life (or life based on some other surprising element) will turn up somewhere else in the universe; as Randall Munroe quips in the xkcd panels above, that’s what NASA-watchers were waiting to hear.  But in any case, the announcement is a clear signal that insofar as the arena of biology is concerned, the ropes are down.  The “givens” aren’t necessarily given; the limits…  well, there may not be limits, at least none anywhere near where we thought they were.   This amounts, as lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon observed, to “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”  Indeed, as Caleb Scharf, a Columbia University astrobiologist, told The New York Times, “It’s like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat.”

When the silicon revolution exploded the barriers to faster computation, then communication, large academic/research organizations and mammoth companies took part in the exploration of the new terrain that was opened.  But famously– and critically importantly– so did individuals and small groups of hobbyists, hackers. and ultimately, entrepreneurs.  Precisely the same pattern is emerging in the exploration of the expanding frontiers of biology.

Huge incumbent institutions like NASA are at work– and so is an already large, and growing, community of “biohackers.”  As Nature reports:

…Would-be ‘biohackers’ around the world are setting up labs in their garages, closets and kitchens — from professional scientists keeping a side project at home to individuals who have never used a pipette before. They buy used lab equipment online, convert webcams into US$10 microscopes and incubate tubes of genetically engineered Escherichia coli in their armpits. (It’s cheaper than shelling out $100 or more on a 37 °C incubator.) Some share protocols and ideas in open forums. Others prefer to keep their labs under wraps, concerned that authorities will take one look at the gear in their garages and label them as bioterrorists.

For now, most members of the do-it-yourself, or DIY, biology community are hobbyists, rigging up cheap equipment and tackling projects that — although not exactly pushing the boundaries of molecular biology — are creative proof of the hacker principle. Meredith Patterson, a computer programmer based in San Francisco, California, whom some call the ‘doyenne of DIYbio’, made glow-in-the-dark yogurt by engineering the bacteria within to produce a fluorescent protein. Others hope to learn more about themselves: a group called DIYgenomics has banded together to analyse their genomes, and even conduct and participate in small clinical trials. For those who aspire to change the world, improving biofuel development is a popular draw. And several groups are focused on making standard instruments — such as PCR machines, which amplify segments of DNA — cheaper and easier to use outside the confines of a laboratory, ultimately promising to make DIYbio more accessible…

[Read the full article, “Garage biotech: Life hackers” in Nature.  And for (many) other examples– both biochemical and biomechanical– see Joel Garreau‘s excellent Radical Evolution.]

Meredith Patterson, developing genetically-altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine (source)

Biohacking has a long, if not altogether respectable, pedigree:  plastic surgery, performance-enhancing drugs…  but then, the earliest tech hackers were often considered outliers– if not indeed, outlaws.  The respectability that they gained over the years was a function of the establishment of the new fields– and new markets– they helped build.  And as Freeman Dyson observes, that’s sure to happen in the biosphere as well:

… I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee [for computers], becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized…

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious…

[Read the whole essay, “Our Biotech Future,” in The New York Review of Books. And do click through to the letters and responses at the end– an amazing colloquy.]


As Dr. Dyson observes, there are certainly attendant dangers.  But as analogs from the silicon revolution (and indeed, all the way back to the beginning of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution) demonstrate, “civilian” participation can speed the development of technologies and multiply the ways in which those technologies can be used.  Indeed, the only major technology of which I can quickly think that did not have meaningful enthusiast/tinker involvement was the development and exploitation of nuclear weapons/power (and that’s arguably not far off); others– even capital/research-intensive tech like aviation, telecom et al.– were lousy with it.

So, are biohacking and the ever-democratizing biotechnologies that enable it a good thing or bad?  Wrong question.  History teaches us that technologies aren’t good or bad, they simply “are.”  We experience them positively or negatively as a function of the way that they are used.  So surely the better question– given that (like the technological capability that spawned Wikileaks)  biohacking is here to stay– is what we can do to assure that its impact is, on balance, good.

How to do that?  A powerful place to start is Kevin Kelly‘s extraordinary new book What Technology Wants:

This provocative book introduces a brand-new view of technology. It suggests that technology as a whole is not just a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. Kelly looks out through the eyes of this global technological system to discover “what it wants.” Kelly uses vivid examples from the past to trace technology’s long course, and then follows a dozen trajectories of technology into the near future to project where technology is headed.

This new theory of technology offers three practical lessons: By listening to what technology wants we can better prepare ourselves and our children for the inevitable technologies to come. By adopting the principles of pro-action and engagement, we can steer technologies into their best roles. And by aligning ourselves with the long-term imperatives of this near-living system, we can capture its full gifts.

[From the Viking 2010 catalog]

One doesn’t have to buy (as, FWIW, I do) Kevin’s identification of technology as a “living, evolving organism,” even as a metaphor, to appreciate the wisdom of his conclusions:  we need to understand emerging technologies; we need engage them, steer them in directions that are safe and productive– we need, jiu jitsu-like, to turn their power to our collective good.

Attempts to deal with the unfamiliar and often uncomfortable implications of new technologies by outlawing the new technologies themselves pretty routinely fail.  But worse, they distract from the need– and the opportunity– to learn how to make use of their new capabilities: e.g., while the RIAA insisted on playing Whack-a-Mole with P2P sites, Apple figured out how to use the new technology to reconfigure the music market with iTunes.

More recently, governments have gone ballistic over Wikileaks, using every direct and indirect means at their disposal to silence the site.  But as The Economist observes, “short of imposing Chinese-style firewalls and censorship, free countries cannot consistently stop their citizens finding out…”  Nor, one might argue, should they– given that what citizens are “finding out” is the range of things being done in their name and on their dime.  But in any case, unless they head for totalitarian extremes, governments will have to find a way to behave that’s not so vulnerable to disclosure:  the genie has left the bottle.

About 12 years ago I gave a talk to the senior management of one of the largest multiple-media conglomerates in the world, outlining the technological forces (then) in play, and suggesting ways in which they might disrupt their (then) current business models.  At the end, I asked if there were any questions; the manager of one of the older, more traditional businesses, threw up his hand.  “Yeah, I’ve got a question:  How do we stop this?”

The answer, history confirms:  “You don’t.”

[Apologies to Rudy Rucker for appropriating the title of this post from his terrific novel.]


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