Field of Science

Biohacking, Bad?

Okay, so in my last post i chatted a bit about biohacking, and how it could be a good thing. However in the wrong hands, it could be a dangerous thing, most likely to the user.

The first danger comes from the scientific equipment itself. The people at DIYbio will likely have thought a bit about this, and understood the risks involved. People following in their footsteps may not. For instance, they may be working with equipment that they rig up themselves, that could be faulty. Electrophoresis gel tanks will give a nasty shock, but they are nothing compared to centrifuges when they go wrong. These people may be working with substandard equipment that is second hand. This is more a mental danger, as I have known of grown men reduced to gibbering wrecks upon finding out that a -80 freezer died taking with it ten years of hard work.

So anyway, I'm going to assume that these people know what they are doing, because otherwise what's the point. Even when you know what you're doing in biology, most of your experiments will fail to work.

Anyway, another danger will be the bacteria themselves. Not necessarily the laboratory strains you can get from a catalogue, but wild contaminants, which will start growing on these plates as soon as possible. If you start growing up lots of bacteria, they will get everywhere. If you are doing these experiments in the kitchen, it is almost like shitting where you eat. One solution would be to do these sorts of experiments in a garage, or somewhere isolated, and using antibiotic selective media.
Only problem with that is that you start enriching for antibiotic resistant bacteria in the home environment. So MRSA, which generally is outcompeted by non-resistant strains when there is no selection present, will do better. If an amateur is really careless, they may just infect themselves if MRSA. But this will only happen with extreme carelessness, like if a person decides to chuck their plates out with the trash rather than autoclaving them immediately after they see contamination (something that most people would do, as contamination often indicates that your experiment just fucked up)
also, many experimental bacterial models, such as e.coli, are derived from human microbial flora, which can turn into pathogens at the drop of a hat. Some people are making the switch to using B. subtilis as a model to build constructs in, as it is practically non-pathogenic (for a given value of practically).

But considering that most labs avoid these problems shows that they aren't insurmountable. However, someone who may want to try doing these sorts of things may have the mad scientist urge without the experience to back it up. That is when problems occur, and if it happens to just one person, it will affect the whole community. Which brings me to probably the biggest danger facing backyard scientists.

Media hysteria. The moment anything untoward happens , the media will most certainly turn against these innovators. If someone mentions that we're modifying e.coli, alomost certainly there will be a sentence afterwards describing the diseases it causes. followed by a vox pop from some next door neighbour who now lives in abject fear of the mad scientist who lives next door. Then they talk to an expert scientist who says that theoretically these labs could be dangerous, and the rest of what he says is cut from the text because it's deemed too boring for use in national newspapers.
It'll be only a matter of time before some dumb arse brings out this quote

Dr. Ian Malcolm: I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility... for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you want to sell it

and the part of the human brain designed to fear raptors kicks into gear, and people run screaming into the streets. okay, maybe not. But from reading the headlines of these not yet written papers, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is what's happening.

I'll be honest here as well, I feel quite snobbish towards amateur science. Partly because of an irrational reflex action that says "Science can't possibly happen outside of a lab" and partly because like many scientists I worked long and hard to get the right to work in a lab, and somehow this biohacking on the surface seems like a way to backdoor this process, even though for the reasons above it clearly is not easy in any way.
I half remember an eminent professor telling me "If research was easy, everybody would be doing it". If you don't understand why that statement now chills me, i'm not really going to bother to explain.

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