GENEWATCH
 
DIYBIO: BIOSECURITY AND THE ENTREPRENEURIAL FUTURE
By Gaymon Bennett
 

Synthetic biologists alternately voice interest and irritation about DIYbio-Do-It-Yourself Biology. The interest is straightforward. DIY-biologists have been styled as biology on the entrepreneurial cutting-edge: branded as the biological equivalent of 1960s Silicon Valley engineers; able to accomplish in the garage what was once only possible in elite university and industry labs.

The irritation is a bit more complicated. If the youth of DIYbio are cast as innovative, they are just as often cast as dangerous. Headlines of "The geneticist in the garage" are usually followed by subheadings reading "But are they a danger to us all?" Which might not be a problem, except that DIYbio is also just as frequently cast (or at least connected to) as synthetic biology. Synthetic biologists may not mind a bit of reflected light from the ostensible edginess of DIYbio, but, naturally, they'd like to be able to distance themselves when strategically necessary.

That DIYbio and synthetic biology have been connected and confused is not altogether surprising. Several of the organizers of the online community diybio.org cut their biological teeth in synthetic biology labs. Many of the key participants in the DIYbio community first got interested in bioengi- neering through iGEM, the annual engineering competition designed to catalyze excitement for synthetic biology among undergrads from around the world. And many have found employment in synthetic biology start ups, few as they are.

Despite overlap of participants and ambitions, similarities between DIYbio and synthetic biology shouldn't be overstated. Taking two online organizations as a mark of the rela- tive differences, we can say that not all DIY-biologists define their work by the effort to "A) design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and B) the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes."[1] Similarly, not all synthetic biologists organize their research in the name of helping to make "biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers." [2]

Nevertheless, at a substantive level the synthetic biology and DIYbio communities do share something of a common goal and orientation. As one leading synthetic biology institution puts it, the goal is to "make biology easier to engineer" and to make materials and know-how openly available. Most participants in DIYbio, offering relevant caveats, would certainly sign on.

Biosecurity

It's for reasons of this commit- ment to ease and access that funders and three-letter agencies have paid such close attention to the development of these two communities. Biosecurity, not surprisingly, is an overriding concern. Actualizing the double goal of "making biology easier to engineering" and making it "widely available" will no doubt catalyze a new range of actors and actions. But what this means for biosecurity in real terms, let alone what should be done about it, remains less than clear.

Take DIYbio. Far from "creating monsters in the garage" as one recent headline put it, DIY-biologists are spending their time on the mundane problems of securing space, resources, and access to expertise. The Bay Area group of DIYbio, for example, has spent a preponderance of their time and effort simply trying to establish space for a "community lab." The problem is not simply lack of funds; several local organizations have offered room for benches. The problem, rather, is that DIYbio has few legal precedents to turn to in dealing with zoning restrictions.

At the level of resources, DIY-biology is, of course, limited by access to basic tools of the lab, from journal subscriptions to PCR machines. As such, a number of community members are designing and fabricating low cost alternatives such as turning a $10 web-camera into a microscope or a $30 rotary drill into a centrifuge.

As for synthetic biology, the situation is yet again more complicated. The scale and mode of work differs enough across labs to belie easy definition of this emerging field, let alone to allow for straightforward regulatory responses to either problems of security or commercialization. For example, the BioFAB, an NSF funded "public benefit facility," is working to produce collections of freely available standard biological parts. The assumption is that the production and release of such standard parts will energize the creation of standard design rules and practices, with all that entails in terms of growth in users and uses.

On the other side of the country, and taking a different strategic approach, the Church lab at Harvard has developed the Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering technique to facilitate whole genome engineering. The technique can perform hundreds of edits on the E coli genome, generating a wider range of proteins at a much faster rate than any known natural or designed system. The process produces on the order of 4 billion genomic variants per day.

Containment

From Asilomar forward the prevailing regulatory mode for biosafety has been technical and organizational containment. Broadly speaking, containment has consisted of two tactical components: restricting those who have access to materials and knowhow, and designing biological constructs in such a way that they can't live outside the lab. This strategic mode has proved successful, and, as such, it is currently being pushed forward as a model on which to base biosecurity responses to synthetic biology and DIYbio.

But the extent to which a mode of containment can prove effective in a world of global biotechnology is very much in question. The days of biology being pursued primarily in elite institutions with guarded security gates are, obviously, long behind us. Despite this, many still maintain that in the global circulation of materials and know-how, a few bottle-necks remain at which something like technologies of containment might be put to work. Hence, DNA synthesis companies are fine-tuning and regularizing their screening mechanisms for pathogens and rogue scientists. And hence, several synthetic biologists are working on designing "safe chassis"-engineered hosts for engineered constructs, which will either die outside laboratory conditions, or safely integrate into natural ecosystems.

Both of these responses, necessary as they may be, will eventually show their limitations. If synthetic biology and DIYbio are successful in their goals, the synthesis companies will no longer be a bottle neck in the production of designed DNA. And however effective safe chassis prove to be in terms of ecological safety, they will eventually be hacked and rewired. Or, more likely, actors will simply find ways to ignore them.

Preparedness

In today's biosecurity landscape events of interest are likely to be low probability/high consequence. What this means is that biosecurity will need to be more than a matter of prevention and containment. Rather, biosecurity will also need to be a matter of preparedness. Preparedness activities might include on-the-ground tracking of the ramifications of synthetic biology and DIYbio, or training in emergency response to biological events. Less familiar activities might include scenario development and stakeholder war-gaming.

For all the attention given to the topic of security and synthetic biology, funders and regulators alike have been slow to implement preparedness as a strategy alongside screening and the design of safe chassis. This means that a first order of business today is to deal with the political fact that, for many, an emphasis on preparedness remains less attractive than an emphasis on containment. It is less attractive for the uncomplicated rea- son that preparedness forces us to face up to the fact that we simply do not know the full extent of dangers on the near-future horizon, nor opportu- nities for that matter.

The research informing this article is being co-conducted with Paul Rabinow and Anthony Stavrianakis. Thanks to Nils Gilman and Tito Jankowski for additional contributions.

Gaymon Bennett is a doctoral stu- dent at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. His work concerns the interactions of religion, politics, and science, with a focus on bioethics.

 
 
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