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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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It's telling that the American outlook of innocent until proven guilty — or, in this case, safe until proven harmful — has been countered in Europe by a precautionary approach. We as a society simply don't know what to make of the fact that we could hold such power over our own biology. Chernobyl was a wake-up call for physicists; though a much longer way off, given the vagaries and immense complexity of biological life forms, synthetic biology could come with its own set of unintended consequences. The fact is, no one knows.

In the meantime, as crowd-funding platforms become a more popular venue for people with clever ideas to raise money, it's worth asking what types of DIY bio projects will get funded in the future. Kickstarter is, after all, based on the premise that backers will get something in return. Thus, it's easy to see how a novel product like a glowing plant might take precedence over an effort like finding an obscure gene implicated in an even more obscure disease. All it might take is a clip from Avatar and a packet of seeds to contain the promise of the boundlessness of science — unless we as a society can figure out what we'd like the future to look like in the first place. Right now, like Taylor's Arabidopsis plant itself, there's not much in the way of light.

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