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Biohacking in the Media — Faster, Cheaper, and … Out of Control?

Synthetic biology, biohacking, et al. seems to be hitting a kind of critical mass. Whatever DIYBio is doing in terms of a PR “strategy” — if indeed they have one — is working.

Seed magazine recently did a story on founder Mac Cowell, and the AP mentions Cowell in a recent “trend piece” on the emergence of a biohacking subculture, explaining the analogy to computing and offering the usual pro and con arguments of letting amateurs hack E. coli in their basements.

From the AP story, by Marcus Wohlsen:

“Defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the garage. … [while] Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage. … Some also fear that terrorists might attempt do-it-yourself genetic engineering”

Boingboing, never missing a beat, picked up on the AP piece, and also linked to a September story from the Boston Globe on DIYBio and Cowell, which also mentions Ginkgo Bioworks, a synthetic bio startup in Cambridge whose cofounder Reshma Ketty I recently had a chance to interview.

Even the Lehrer News Hour did a story just the other day on synthetic biology, the iGem competition, and — there he is again — Cowell. You can listen to that over here.

A commenter on Boingboing pointed to another excellent audio file, a lecture on biohacking by Chris Seidel from the Last Hope hackers’ convention in 2008, in which he lucidly explains the big concepts and makes a case for the value of the whole proposition of looking at biology from the perspective of a hackable system — and for keeping the materials and information as free as possible.

I have a sense that all of this may get rolling very quickly now. Where it will lead, no one — not even the hackers — know. But there’s certain to be plenty of hysteria about the dangers of biotinkering. Which leads me to make one more link here, to an excellent and relevant piece in Wired by my friend and mentor Steve Silberman, “Don’t Try This at Home,” about the federal crackdown on the practice of amateur chemistry.

Interesting times … stay tuned.

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