September 1, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 15)

Current Stance against Independent Biological Innovation Is Counterproductive

Gather up a few thousand people and you will find, without fail, that several of them have some very impressive hobbies. There are overclockers, pushing their computers to the limit by employing sophisticated refrigeration and coolant; rocketeers, sending everything from cameras to GPS trackers to remarkable heights; and fusioneers, building tritium reactors for fun.

Joining the club are the amateur bioengineers, or DIYbio enthusiasts, who cultivate and modify all sorts of organisms. These bioengineers have enjoyed a remarkable amount of media coverage, and student-outreach programs such as iGEM and summer recombinant DNA classes are gaining in popularity.

This grass-roots interest in scientific advancement is not new. Independent research has produced several landmark discoveries, including Edward Jenner’s work that led to the smallpox vaccine. Some creative innovations such as extremely low-cost gel electrophoresis boxes, agarose gels in plastic straws, and hardware-store-derived thermocyclers have already come out of today’s movement.

Much has been made of the possibility of these hobbyists (or perhaps some more maliciously intentioned types) rebuilding the smallpox virus or accidentally creating an invasive or harmful organism. It is certainly possible, but its credibility as a threat depends more on whether it is probable.

Compared to less-than-ethical governments, flush with resources and expertise (such as the Soviet Union, which produced thousands of tons of weaponized smallpox it still cannot account for) and nature itself (which to date has produced every serious human pathogen), the humble hobbyist lacks the resolve, the time, and the resources to match wits with these forces.

Hospitals and prisons account for the spread and development of several multidrug-resistant strains of bacteria, and nonhuman primates served as the incubator for simian immunodeficiency virus before it jumped species to humans. Even the most potent pathogen incubator could not compete with billions of humans, livestock, and mammalian wildlife all growing more potent bacterial and viral strains with each passing day. Even so, the DIYbio crowd is in extreme danger.

In a world where conversation is dominated by antiterrorism measures and ecological disasters, science hobbyists, especially those working with biological substances, are poised in the crosshairs of public backlash. Consider what happened to two men who ran afoul of the current hyper-sensitivity to irregularities in the field of biological research:

  • In 2003, the respected bubonic plague expert Thomas Butler, M.D., noticed that 30 vials of plague cultures were missing from his lab. After a weekend of searching for the vials, he did what any responsible researcher would do—he reported his findings to his university’s security office, which, in turn, notified the FBI. The result was a years-long nightmare, wherein Dr. Butler was brutally interrogated, charged with multiple crimes (some of which actually related to the loss of the potentially hazardous vials), was convicted, lost his job and his medical license, and was consigned to a federal prison.
  • In 2004, Steven Kurtz, Ph.D., a professor of art at SUNY-Buffalo, urgently called 9-1-1 to report that his wife and long-time artistic partner had collapsed and was unresponsive. The responding police noticed and found suspicious the couple’s art materials of petri dishes of various bacteria cultures and a mobile lab for testing “organically labeled” food. Within a day, Dr. Kurtz was detained by federal agents and questioned for 22 hours; his home cordoned off and searched by personnel in hazmat suits; and his car, computers, manuscripts, equipment, cat, and his wife’s body seized for further analysis. After a week, the New York State Public Health Commissioner ruled that nothing in the home posed a public risk—and Dr. Kurtz was allowed to reclaim his wife’s body and return home. (The subsequent finding was that she had died of heart failure.)

Without the appearance of proper regulation, the DIYbio community is just one unfortunate lab accident (even if it occurs in a carefully regulated institution) from crackdown. Official registration, while reassuring, could easily serve as a list of black sheep for politicians needing a scapegoat.

What these communities really need is to be  nurtured, provided with safety information, and allowed well-monitored use of shared facilities. Legal authorities should be educated on how to identify biological risks, and any flagrant abuses should be addressed using existing statutes.

It has been over 35 years since the “Asilomar” conference was used to cement public trust in the biological sciences and its use of recombinant DNA. But with thermocyclers and oligo synthesizers showing up on eBay, perhaps it is time to shore up that trust once more.

Zachary N. Russ

Zachary N. Russ ([email protected]) is a student at the University of Maryland. He is also a Goldwater scholar.

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