Amateur geneticists, working at home in spare bedrooms and garages, are manipulating the basic building blocks of life. Are they scientific researchers or are they dangerous meddlers?
Most of them are using home-made or cobbled-together equipment, coupled with information available on the Internet, to change the way living organisms work. One example is Meredith L. Patterson, a computer programmer from San Francisco. She is working to build a genetically altered yogurt that will change color if it is exposed to melamine, the dangerous chemical that has made some recent Chinese food products deadly. Patterson says, “People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process.”
Genetic engineering is the sort of research that is usually performed by highly educated Ph.D.s in million-dollar laboratories. Of course, computers were the product of similar environments until amateurs began inventing new ones in garages in Silicon Valley. So how can we judge whether or not it is the university and corporate experts or the home-based amateur geneticists that are the best researchers? Can we be sure that only the former are safe for society, and that all of the latter are dangerous?
A group of so-called “bio-hackers” is setting up a community laboratory called DIYbio in Cambridge, MA. They want to provide publicly available lab space to budding amateur bio-engineers that need equipment and experiment space for their projects. The project was co-founded by Mackenzie Cowell, a young man of 24 who was a biology major in college. Mackenzie says, “We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game.” At the same time, he says that amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, as well as less mainstream projects, like tattoos that glow in the dark, according to an AP article.
Proponents of amateur genetic research point out the large number of discoveries that have been made by amateur scientists, outside of “normal” research channels. Detractors say that such work by non-professionals could release a plague into society, or become the dupes of terrorists, and that such work could cause diseases or irreversible environmental damage.
This may be a field where some sort of regulation or oversight is required in order to keep the worst-case scenarios from happening. However, it might be a mistake to keep amateurs out of the field altogether. We do not want to stifle creativity in any area, and especially not one so important as bio-engineering, where we can reasonably expect the cures for the difficult diseases to come from.