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Bio Hackers

A recent Kickstarter campaign to genetically engineer a glowing plant and distribute its seeds across the country has raised questions about the ethical responsibility of DIY scientists in the brave new world of synthetic biology.



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Kuiken first became interested in DIY bio a few years ago, when news reports in The New York Times and elsewhere warned that an unregulated underground network of garage scientists could — intentionally or unintentionally — synthesize new viruses, drugs, and bio-weapons that could potentially cause serious harm. "Amateurs Are New Fear in Creating Mutant Virus," was one particularly alarming headline in the Times. Kuiken described the press coverage as a "magnifying glass" on the community, "stoking the flames of people's fears in a way that was usually uncalled for."

Part of this sensationalism was natural: DIY bio was a new endeavor, as was the field of synthetic biology. A small group of people possessing the tools to manipulate the most basic keys of life was, and continues to be, a somewhat unsettling fact for many. Yet, compared to private companies seeking to turn a profit, scientists in the DIY bio world sought to openly disclose the nature of their work.

Kuiken, whose work focuses on emerging technologies, saw DIY bio as posing interesting questions: "What happens when you get a community that is, in essence, made up of individuals that people have argued are coming from a sort of hacker ethos, and may not want to come together around sorts of codes of conduct?" he said. "We saw it is an opportunity to sort of help the movement ask these questions about risk ... helping to sort of develop the community and make it a bit more coherent."

The leaders of the DIY bio community were keen to do so, in a genuine attempt at letting the public know what they were doing and that they were taking the necessary safety precautions. In 2011, Kuiken and the founders of helped organize two workshops, in London and San Francisco, each with about two dozen participants, who hammered out a sort of Hippocratic code of ethics for the community.

And yet, as described in a New York Times article last year, "the ethos is closer to scout manual than peer-reviewed journal." The codes of ethics aim to foster good behavior, but there will always be aberrations — and what then? "One of the things to keep in mind is that with a trusting and open and transparent environment like this, you share what you're doing with other people, and you share what you're learning," said Kavita Berger, associate director for the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "People share, give each other advice, post to forums — so there's this sort of self-correcting type of mechanism already in place in the community. If one community member ends up doing something harmful, that affects everyone. So there's an incentive for them to make sure that everyone is fully aware of the risks and the legal framework in which they're doing their work."

To keep an eye out for potential bioterrorism, about four years ago the DIY bio community formed a partnership with the FBI similar to the Department of Homeland Security's anti-terrorism campaign "If You See Something, Say Something." The DIY labs have coordinated communications with local FBI agents to report any suspicious activity within their spaces.

But on the biosafety side, DIY scientists have been pretty much left to their own discretion. Luckily, they've taken their self-regulating roles very seriously. "I've argued that they've taken a lot of these issues more seriously, and addressed them more directly, than a lot of industry labs do," said Kuiken. "They know that if something were to go wrong, that has a much broader impact on them than if something were to go wrong at a university lab, for example."

Which is a big reason why BioCurious proprietors are keeping a stranglehold on the work the Glowing Plant team performed at their lab. If McCauley, Hathaway, and the rest of the BioCurious board ultimately decide that the project's decision to release seeds is something they deem reckless — however legal — they'll strike down the material transfer agreement to allow the Glowing Plant team take its research to its new lab.

"Best practice in the industry is that you're not just guided by what's legal; you're guided by civic duty and responsibility, and even the perception of the problem," said McCauley. "Listen, I like to have aspirational goals and be working on big projects. I like the educational potential of this. I like the idea of a glowing plant. I'd like to own one. But scaring a lot of people causes a backlash and probably causes restrictive legislation. And if there is a problem, there will definitely be a backlash. The fact that it could cause a problem is a problem in itself."

One of the concerns is the potential for the glowing Arabidopsis plants to cross-pollinate with other Arabidopsis plants — a possibility that thus far the Glowing Plant team has said won't happen. But, according to Ohio State University ecology professor Allison Snow, the plants are capable of cross-pollinating; and, though Arabidopsis is not a "native" plant, it's still found in many places across the United States. So despite the fact that the plants' machinery may be weakened as a result of producing the glow, cross-pollination can't be entirely ruled out. It's also worth considering that the plants may be able to persist in the wild, at least at a low level.

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