Synthetic biology hackers announce "self-imposed moratorium"
Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on January 14th, 2009
An article in the current issue of New Scientist opens with the story of a woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts "who works as a synthetic biologist for a biotech company by day" and in her spare time at home, in a small closet, "recently concocted vials of an entirely new genetically modified organism."
According to "Rise of the garage genome hackers," scientists including George Church - the Harvard geneticist and biotech / synthetic biology entrepreneur - are encouraging these sorts of do-it-yourself adventures. So is the group DIYbio, which describes itself as an "Institution for the Amateur," along with the science fiction website io9.com, which is sponsoring a contest for "mad scientists with homebrew closet labs, grassroots geneticists, and garage genome hackers."
New Scientist has the sense to ask whether this is such a good idea. Richard Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, notes:
Without any oversight from an institution, colleagues or peers, the probability that a cataclysmic entity might be constructed by someone unaware of known cautions is significant. But not to worry. DIYbio says that it has called for "a self-imposed moratorium" on homebrew synthetic biology experiments, "until researchers can show that what they are doing is safe."
Jim Thomas of ETC Group, which has been tracking developments in synthetic biology, is not reassured. His comment:
I nominate this as the lamest piece of voluntary governance so far this year.
Looking Ahead to 2009
Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 12th, 2009
In the final part of our trilogy of new year's posts (1, 2), the Biopolitical Times bloggers make some predictions for 2009.
Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies should brace themselves
for the inevitable media backlash after a year of adoring publicity. More
reporters are likely to pick up the idea that "genetic information today is essentially
meaningless at the individual level." Combine that with increasing concerns
about genetic privacy in "a world in which our DNA can be screened by anybody at anytime," and
with likely complaints about conspicuous consumption during a depression, and there
could be some bad publicity ahead. They'll probably weather the storm.
There's little doubt about who will be Biologist of the Year: Charles Darwin. His 200th birthday is on February
12th, followed on November 24th by the 150th anniversary of the publication of
The Origin of Species. The British Natural History Museum is in the thick
of its Darwin 200 celebrations, and lists events all year all
over Britain. Darwin Day Celebration has more of a North
American focus. There's talk of a movie and maybe two.
In the realm of wild, uninformed speculation, 2009 may be the year that
scientists agree (again) on what a gene is. The word "gene" (as,
essentially, "unit of heredity") is 100 years old this
year, but late 20th-century definitions have been increasingly hobbled by
anomalies. The ENCODE Project showed in
2007 that "non-gene" sequences have vital functions, leading some to ask, "What is a gene,
post-ENCODE?" and others to say that the gene is having an "identity
crisis." Even if that gets resolved, however, we probably won't have a
definitive answer this year to the grand old question: how many genes do humans
Although criticism is mounting, expect the expansion of DNA databases to include the genetic profiles of arrestees to continue. Currently, only a handful of states permit including DNA profiles from people arrested but not convicted of felonies (otherwise known as "innocent people") in their criminal database. With California and the federal government shifting policies this month to include arrestees’ DNA, expect more states and localities to follow suit. Our grandparents sold apples on the street, and lined up outside soup kitchens. Will we be telling our grandchildren stories about young women vying to sell their eggs and land contracts to carry pregnancies for affluent couples? As the economy gets worse, it will be a buyers' market for eggs and surrogates (1, 2, 3). Will the hard-to-miss lessons of inadequate regulation of financial markets be applied to the markets for eggs and wombs?
After an initial flurry of media coverage surrounding the new president lifting Bush's funding restrictions, human embryonic stem cell research will fade as a relevant political issue. Cellular reprogramming will continue to make strides, and cloning-based work will stagnate, with researchers continuing to abandon the field.
Synthetic biology will be heralded by the media as the "next big thing," much like nanotechnology was a few years ago. The big question is if, and when, scientists led by Craig Venter will successfully transplant their synthesized bacterial genome into an existing bacterium, and have it function. My money is on the eventual success of this endeavor, but not this year. There's a decent chance that a synthetic biology "hacker" will accidentally cook up a deadly microbe in a bathtub sooner.
Discussion of "second generation PGD" will gather steam in academic and quasi-academic publications. In this, traditional PGD is coupled with wider genome scans - whose price is plummeting - to allow prospective parents to select among embryos based upon multiple genetic characteristics. Furthermore, the role of prenatal scanning will begin to change, as more tests become available that analyze fetal DNA in the prospective mother's blood at five or six weeks of pregnancy.
Racism and Genomes
Posted by Pete Shanks on January 9th, 2009
|"We are all Armenians" -- Turks protest for justice|
Recently there was theoretical discussion about analyzing the genomes of Presidential candidates. Now this prospect has moved much closer to reality -- in Turkey (h/t Jonathan Moreno at Science Progress). And the context is not medical but explicitly racist.
Behind it lies the enduring dispute about the Armenian "Great Catastrophe" of 1915, an ethic cleansing that most non-Turks regard as genocide. There are increasing calls in Turkey for an apology, which President Abdullah Gul has not endorsed but has refused to condemn. In response, a Turkish opposition politician, Canan Aritman, has "accused" Gul of having Armenian blood, and demanded that he undergo a genomic test, asserting:
"These days, scientists use DNA tests, not family trees, to identify ethnic identity."
On this detail, Aritman is not entirely wrong: Some ancestry-testing companies claim to validate membership in certain Native American tribes (which can lead to economic benefit). More generally, the business of finding your roots through genetic tests has increasing appeal, especially to African-Americans whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. as slaves. Much more horrific possibilities might include demands that someone take a Jewish ancestry test.
It's regrettable that Gul responded by taking the line that his family is "100% Muslim and Turk" rather than saying, as some wish he had that "it would make no difference if his granny had been an Armenian."
This particular storm may blow over; Aritman has been widely condemned for her racism. But it stands as a textbook example of the abuse of science to bolster prejudices.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
CGS's favorite blog posts of 2008
Posted by Jesse Reynolds on January 8th, 2009
|8.7, 8.5, 9.0, Wasn't paying attention, 8.5|
Continuing the theme of looking back at 2008, a panel of critical judges (ourselves) voted for our favorite posts at Biopolitical Times:
One gene, two genes; Red genes, blue genes
by Jesse Reynolds, February 14th, 2008
The cover of a recent issue of New Scientist conveniently captures almost all that is wrong with media coverage of genetic discoveries.
PhRMA and BIO self-image: Downtrodden and besieged
by Marcy Darnovsky, February 25th, 2008
Pity the poor bioscience industry.
Who's Biting Who?: Headlines on white surrogate for Asian couple
by Osagie Obasogie, March 10th, 2008
When it comes to reproductive technologies, race is increasingly becoming the dividing line between journalists' view of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The Many Hats of Robert Klein
by Jesse Reynolds, April 11th, 2008
The chair of California's multi-billion dollar stem cell research agency tries to juggle many hats, including those of advocate and lobbyist.
Breadline or egg line?
by Marcy Darnovsky, August 6th, 2008
More women are trying to deal with the economic downturn by selling their eggs or signing up as surrogates.
The spitterati and trickle-down genomics
by Marcy Darnovsky, September 17th, 2008
23andMe's use of celebrities and glitzy parties to promote its direct-to-consumer DNA tests has deflected attention from the concerns and criticisms of physicians, bioethicists, and regulators.
Bioethics for Profit? H+ ≈ Humanity+ ≈ Humanity Plus ≈ WTA ≈ Extropy (etc.)
by Pete Shanks, October 14th, 2008
Is there something problematic about an explicitly for-profit bioethics operation that is closely linked to a prominent academic journal?
by Pete Shanks, October 20th, 2008
The relaunch of the World Transhumanist Association, now Humanity Plus, stumbles on, with the launch of H+ Magazine.
All the President's Genes?
by Pete Shanks, November 5th, 2008
Some are proposing that we begin to judge candidates by genotype instead of superficial aspects of phenotype
The rich are different from you and me: Yes, they hire surrogates
by Jesse Reynolds, December 1st, 2008
The cover story of last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine addresses the issue of the commercialization of assisted reproduction in a manner that is simultaneously bluntly honest and painfully naive.
Picking the Best Baby
by Jesse Reynolds, December 2nd, 2008
With the price of genetic sequencing plummeting, technologies enabling prospective parents and clinicians to pick the genetically "best" potential child may become feasible.
DNA Databases: Another Human Rights Violation in the U.S. Criminal Justice System?
by Osagie K. Obasogie, December 9th, 2008
A ruling last week out of the European Court of Human Rights suggests that the US might be engaging in a human rights violation by collecting and retaining DNA profiles from arrestees never convicted of a crime.