Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Creative Biotechnology

According to Alex Palazzo, one of the big ideas from this year's ScienceFOO "Camp"* was
biohacking - garage molecular biology is the future. Modularizing DNA functional components will help promote this technology. (Drew Endy) Will molecular biology be so simple that someday a disgruntled kid will construct some sort of lethal biological agent? (Greg Bear) Perhaps the shared knowledge between individuals will help prevent such a scenario? (Drew Endy) The greatest risk is not the biological agent, but the public's over-reaction. (many) [. . .]
Certainly Freeman Dyson (who was also at Science FOO - who wasn't there?) would agree.

While genetic-engineering-at-home kits aren't available at present, you might want to check out biotech artist Natalie Jeremijenko's Creative Biology: A User's Manual. Wired Science points out that Jeremijenko uses biotechnology to look at the world from a slightly different angle.

In the fifth chapter of Creative Biology: A User's Manual, Jeremijenko proposes a series of home mouse experiments that -- as is her specialty -- mix humor, cleverness, and a do-it-yourself ethos into a recipe for asking unexpectedly profound questions.

One experiment involves a musical composition that is played by mice snatching food from floor-mounted spoons and evolves as their tastes change. In another, people are encouraged to ask, "Will mice in Manhattan deliver (or take) food from a trapped mouse? That is to say, how different are mice geographically?" More recreationally-minded home labs can observe whether mice prefer water to vodka, gin & tonics, or antidepressant-laced beverages.

Or maybe Chapter 2 - culturing your own skin cells - is more your style. Just remember that it's not yet hobbies-as-usual to have petri dishes and tissue incubators in your home. As Jeremijenko discusses in the introduction, the projects are as much politics as it is science and art:
In the kits and explorations we have discussed, the one thing thatais absolutely unequivocally clear is that biotechnology is not something confined to well funded academic and corporate labs. The ideas and technologies of biotech effect us all. Biotechnology has far reaching effects on our health, on our environment and on our politics and many effects we cannot yet know or specify. It even effects our own sense of political agency in the world: are we predetermined by genetic predispositions, or by the environments in which we live. Biotech hobbyist emphasizes the later; this is where we can act, change and improve things.
It's interesting to speculate about a future in which we can change our own genes on whim and genetics is never destiny.

* Science FOO was an unstructured conference hosted by Google, O'Reilly and Nature that brought together scientists, science fiction writers and thinkers (not to mention Martha Stewart).

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