Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bringing biotechnology into the home





Today I watched a most intriguing TedTalk on biotechnology by Cathal Garvey.

Young Garvey is the founder of the blog, Indie Biotech, whereat he aims to bring biotechnology tools into wider accessibility, even into people's homes. As he points out, many of us are directly benefiting from genetic modification in one way or another, whether that be from medicines we take, vaccines we've received, food we eat (much to many people's chagrin), clothes we wear (genetically modified cotton), or even those who have genetically modified pets. We learn more and more about this subject all the time, including just recently the isolation of the germ cells that create sperm and eggs. So why not take this technology out of cloistered labs and bring it into home use?

Computer programmers are already at the forefront of this "biohacking," manipulating E. coli bacteria to spell out "hello world," the first program most hackers learn to run. The advent of 3D printing will only make things more accessible.  Garvey demonstrated how he was able to form a DIY centrifuge out of a standard hardware drill and 3D printed plastic. This the allowed him to separate cells, DNA, proteins, and "all those things you hear that cause zombies" as he says.

Well, what happens when "maker culture" obtains the ability to synthesize DNA from scratch? It's not that far away as biotechnology has developed its own form of 3D printing. Called a bioprinter, the device can already produce cells, proteins, and gels. It may soon be able to produce full organs. Exciting, yes, but more immediate uses would be a bit more tame than printing out limbs should you lose one. To wit:

Imagine this: bioengineered house plants that produce plastic. Once these plastics evanesce into being, you harvest them and place them as raw stock in your 3D printer. Spider silk has a powerful tensile strength, enough to repel bullets (as anyone who has read Spider-Man comics will tell you, natch.) One problem with that, however, is you can't very well milk a spider. What one can do is isolate the enzymes and bio matter that make up the silk and reproduce it via biotechnology. Pretty soon, you can have your own spider silk clothes that are hearty enough to deflect bullets.

So that's the idea. Why buy technology to modify and repair your body when you can do it yourself at home? Additionally, as Garvey points out, why be afraid of biotech when you're already eating and wearing it with seeming abandon?

There is perhaps one thing you should be afraid of and that's me. If you've been reading the blog for any length of time, you probably already know that and why.

I'll put it this way. Have you seen Planet of the Apes? Wellll, it occurs to me that having my own simian army might not be such a bad thing. Comes in handy, I'm thinking. Given the proper DNA and biotech tools such as Garvey is describing in his talk, I'm pretty sure I could cook one up. Just need a gorilla. Or a chimp. Or what the hell? Why not both? It's only a matter of time before my bipedal apes accompany me to campus.

Who am I kidding? I'm sure DARPA is already on this. After all, why have drones when you can have an ape army?

Makes sense, right?


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