Early days in a DIY biological revolution
Published: 28th Mar 2012 00:54:19
In a back-street in Manchester's old garment district, now buzzing with students and bars, 20 or so people have gathered to do something unimaginable even a few years ago.
They are here for a session of MadLab, a science club, and this evening is devoted to amateur biology.
But this is not your typical study of butterflies or pond life. This is DIYBIO, part of a movement that began in the US, and the goal is to play with genes, to manipulate nature.
The task tonight is to assemble a newly-delivered piece of equipment: a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine, a device which takes short strands of DNA and copies them.
Until recently it would have been affordable only to scientific institutions.
But this one cost a few hundred pounds. Advanced technology is tumbling in price, and is becoming a new power accessible to all.
The atmosphere is excited, the different components hurriedly assembled.
The organiser, Asa Calow, believes in the value of the amateur.
The coming revolution will be biological and DIY will play a key role.”
He says the industrial revolutions brought about by steam and computing were driven by creative individuals - think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in California in the 70s, toiling in garages, changing the world.
The coming revolution will be biological and DIY will play a key role.
The group's next step is to buy a machine that not only copies DNA but makes it to order: a gene synthesiser.
A typical price on eBay? Well under £1,000.
This would enable the amateurs to create new genes and therefore, in theory, new kinds of organisms.
It is at this point that, for some, an alarm bell rings.
What if enthusiasts cook up some new synthetic organism that proves unexpectedly harmful and then accidentally slips out, poured down a drain or stuck to a poorly washed hand?
Stranger things have happened for real. In 2007 foot-and-mouth virus escaped from the labs at Pirbright in Surrey.
As I reported at the time, work was under way on a vaccine for the disease when the leak happened.
There's even a name for this scenario: "bio-error".
Asa tells me he and others will follow every bio-safety regulation "to the letter" to avoid anything going wrong.
A code of conduct for amateurs will guide every step.
But what about unintended consequences, not only of enthusiasts making mistakes but also the dozens of academic laboratories and corporate researchers in the US, China and the UK?
Three years ago, Lloyd's of London identified synthetic biology as an "emerging risk" for insurers.
They produced a report describing it as a "new and exciting technology" but also warned of unforeseen hazards.
"It is possible that two or more benign strands of DNA will interact so that the risk is far greater than the sum of the parts.
"In the lab this risk is, arguably, containable; even in a contained industrial process it is manageable; but loose in the environment the risks are far greater."
Last month a coalition of more than a hundred environmental groups endorsed a report calling for a moratorium on the commercial release of any products of synthetic biology.
The study describes the new science as "extreme genetic engineering", a signal that the decades-long opposition to genetic modification (GM) is set to continue.
Expect the question of regulation to loom larger in coming years as the momentum behind this new science builds and becomes more affordable.”
It argues that current safety regulations are inadequate for such a radical new technology.
Multinational companies could end up patenting and owning whole industrial processes and the feed stock needed for engineered bacteria will most likely be grown in developing nations displacing food crops.
Another concern has been raised by military analysts: the risk of so-called bio-terror from new forms of deadly biological weapons.
The same arguments were raised when GM emerged.
In an interview 20 years ago, Prof Malcolm Dando of Bradford University told me that GM was a technology with "dual uses" - benign and malign.
It could produce life-saving drugs or dangerous organisms.
Now he says the same is true of synthetic biology - not immediately, but in the long-term.
He surveyed some 3,000 scientists working in life sciences to ask if they were aware that their work could have two uses.
What he found was that very few had thought about it.
So what are the options? The Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars runs a project that aims to find answers.
It has drawn up a plan for careful oversight and tighter international regulation.
Watch the researchers at work and you sense the passions that come at the dawn of a new era. ”
The goal, according to the project's director David Rejeski, is to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks.
Similarly, a report by the London School of Economics calls for a flexible and evolving "art of governance" to ensure a dialogue continues between every group involved.
In the early 90s, GM was launched with a series of spectacular own-goals - big business seemingly foisting weird new foods on an unsuspecting public for the apparently sole purpose of boosting profits.
The synthetic biologists are desperate to avoid a repeat. Ethics and safety, they say, are built in from the start of each project.
Organisms are designed with "suicide switches" so they self-destruct if they escape.
The first products, such as detectors to spot parasites and infections, will be as overtly useful as possible.
But will people be more accepting than they were of GM when it first appeared?
In 2009-10 two UK research councils - the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) - canvassed the views of 160 members of the public.
The researchers found 'conditional support' for synthetic biology but also fears about control, benefits and impact.
The key conclusion was that current laws may not be adequate to provide robust oversight.
So expect the question of regulation to loom larger in coming years as the momentum behind this new science builds and becomes more affordable.
Listen to the excited chatter at MadLab in Manchester and you'll believe that this offers great opportunity.
Watch the researchers at work and you sense the passions that come at the dawn of a new era.
Read the reports of the environmental campaigners and we face a nightmare future.
So where will this lead? As with the early days of all revolutions, it's too soon to tell.
At 13:57:23 in SportDavid Gilbert admitted he had been outclassed after his World Championship campaign came to an abrupt end with a 10-4 defeat by last year's Crucible runner-up Barry Hawkins.
At 13:56:11 in EnglandA baby squirrel was found "nesting" in the thick woollen fleece of a sheep in Suffolk, its owner said.
At 13:52:21 in SportThe British Horseracing Authority will assess Chelmsford City Racecourse's application to host fixtures in 2015.
At 13:46:17 in EnglandA 25-year-old man found dead at a house in Lincoln has been named.
At 13:42:47 in ScotlandPlans to reduce the number of payday lenders on the high street are being discussed at Scotland's first payday lending summit in Glasgow.
At 13:41:40 in SportJersey's Team Jets could have an easier path to promotion to English Netball's Premiership Three after the withdrawal of one of their play-off opponents.
At 13:39:52 in WorldAuthorities in Australia are examining material washed ashore to determine if it is related to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
At 13:36:05 in SportLast year's runner-up Barry Hawkins beat David Gilbert 10-4 to reach the second round of the World Championships at the Crucible.
At 13:35:44 in EnglandVisitors to part of the East Yorkshire coast have been warned to look out for live ammunition after the army bomb squad had to carry out a controlled explosion on a beach.
At 13:35:02 in BusinessBoeing's total revenues rose 8% to $20.5bn (£12.2bn) in the first quarter, driven by an increase in commercial aircraft deliveries.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Early days in a DIY biological revolution [Online] (Updated 28th Mar 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1419137/Early-days-in-a-DIY-biological-revolution [Accessed 23rd Apr 2014]
News In Other Categories
Three people have appeared in court charged in connection with an incident at a loyalist protest camp in north Belfast.
The director of care at a children's hospice has been cleared of professional misconduct over the way she dealt with a dying teenager.
Eight major renewable energy projects, expected to support 8,500 jobs, have been given government approval.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
Work is to start on transforming a derelict lido which has been closed for more than 20 years into a visitor attraction.
Plans to reduce the number of payday lenders on the high street are being discussed at Scotland's first payday lending summit in Glasgow.