Thursday, January 1, 2009

Open Sourcing Biology? Good idea or dangerous?

I saw a very interesting piece on the Newshour by PBS. I will let you look into the finer details but here is what is going on in a nutshell from what I can gather:
  1. We understand several biological structures and have catalogued their properties.
  2. Experts take these catalogued structures and through biological engineering form new structures with specialized properties to do things like cure diseases or create biofuels.
  3. Various people want to "open source" this: They want to make the catalogues publicly available and provide education to help any layman become a genetic/biological engineer.
  4. In theory, like any open source movement, hopefully this will expand research that couldn't have been accomplished in any other way.
  5. Critics fear people in their basements will do some really controversial, unethical and dangerous stuff because now all the tools are provided.
What do I think? First, Linux is evidence that if you "provide the code" 100 times more people will work to make the world better then will try to do mischief. (And the world is better because of open source.) Second, truly evil people who want to create some new deadly biotoxin will figure out how to do it without this "open sourcing". But ultimatley, nothing is certain.

I personally would love to try it. I would love to learn how to take some known bacteria or something and figure out some new way to alter it to accomplish some goal. It would be intelligently designed. :)

1 comment:

  1. I have a couple of reaction to this. First, I think that there should definitely be some sort of regulatory oversight in open-sourcing biology in the same mold as the system for licensing ham radio operators. It should require some level of technical (not academic) competence, but should be something that requires at most a few night classes, not a PhD.

    Second, I think that both bio- and nano-technology are worried about to far too much. Of course we should be careful with these technologies, but I think the fear of these technologies is generally overblown. We have all seen too many movies where someone either on purpose or accidentally creates a super-virus or genetically enhances monkeys or creates modern dinosaurs that then run amok killing people and/or destroying modern civilization. I think we all need to take a deep breath and calm down a bit.


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