Amateur Bioengineering?

Bill Gates thinks that robots are at the equivalent stage that computers were when he and Paul Allen and a ton of hobbyists helped fuel the PC revolution. But is he right? Here is a radical proposal: might not bioengineering be the next field where amateurs have a huge impact? Such is the hypothesis of DIYbio which had its first meeting in Cambridge, MA on May 1st:

In the packed back-room of Asgard's Irish Pub in Cambridge, a diverse crowd of 25+ enthusiasts gathered to discuss the next big thing in biology: amateurs. Mackenzie (Mac) Cowell led-off the night with an overview of recent history in biological engineering, and asked the question: Can molecular biology or biotechnology be a hobby? Will advancements in synthetic biology be the tipping point that enables DIYers and garagistas to make meaningful contributions to the biological sciences, outside of traditional institutions? Can DIYbio.org be the Homebrew Computer Club of biology?
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Hmm. What's the compelling application? I guess home DNA testing would be pretty cool (to satisfy one's hypochondria if nothing else).

The real killer app would be if I could perform DIY gene therapy... as in, I would force myself to drop math and physics for a while to make sure that I knew how to do that to myself. Haha, can you imagine? "Hey internet, I think I found the recipe for changing your eye color! Beta testers wanted!!"

Funny you should mention this - I have said for a few years that the next Bill Gates will 'grow an operating system in a bathtub' kinda half joking. [I did work for Bill for nearly 10 years and like many software guys am looking for next big challenge].

After watching this TED talk (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/227) I find that it will be soon possible to run code in synthetic molecules. The whole idea has that feel of 70's computer clubs and makes me wonder who will come up with a good enough general purpose operating system for bio machines??

I reckon you are on the right track - bio is more interesting than robots.

Fang - Mike Seyfang

Well consider the case of 16 year old Danile Burr of Waterloo Ontario. He recently won $30,000 in the Canada-Wide Science Fair for his Plastic Not Fantastic study where he showed how to biologically break down plastic bags in an environmentally, and industrially scalable, friendly manner. Not quite bioengineering as he didn't modify an organism, but instead selected for specific properties, but that can't be far off.

Bioterrorism will also become more dangerous, check out "The White Plague" by Frank Herbert.

Actually, I have a personal ambition. There are several people out there who have written programs which turn DNA sequences into "music"; what about the reverse? I want to turn several verses of Bohemian Rhapsody into a DNA sequence, write it into a model organism (Drosophila, C. elegans, mouse, I'm not sure at this point), and see if it codes for anything. Or kills the organism. Whatever. I just want to do this to see what happens.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 30 May 2008 #permalink

Luna_the_cat:

Brilliant idea !
I can imagine that the encoding method you choose and the insertion location (where in the genome) will have an impact on the phenotype ... but most likely there will be no phenotype for most combinations. There must be some literature on how often inserting completely random sequences causes lethality vs. defect vs. nothing obvious.

I've always thought it would be cool to teach baby birds (parrots or Indian Minors maybe) to sing a tune from Pink Floyds Dark Side of the Moon, then release them to breed and teach their young. Maybe there would be a whole lineage across generations that keep imitating the tune their parents sung, maybe it would 'morph' over generations, or maybe it would be diluted by native calls within a generation.

"I've always thought it would be cool to teach baby birds (parrots or Indian Minors maybe) to sing a tune from Pink Floyds Dark Side of the Moon,"

I would have chosen "Pigs on the Wing" from "Animals" :)

It's not a radical proposal. Biohacking(recombinant DNA) has been going on in universities since the 70'ies. MIT:s iGEM competition draws high school teams now - doing quite advanced stuff. What makes the DIYbio crowd special is that they are the first organized group(I've heard of) outside academia. There is definitely a fast growing community of young biopunks out there. I know some of them.

-dR the Biopunk