The Boston Globe features an interesting article on homemade biology labs that are springing up across the country, thanks to dropping prices on all kinds of lab equipment and the ease of acquiring the machines.
The movement is getting much of its steam from synthetic biology, a field of science that seeks to make working with cells and genes more like building circuits by creating standardized biological parts. The dream, already playing out in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at MIT, is that biology novices could browse a catalog of ready-made biological parts and use them to create customized organisms. Technological advances have made it quite simple to insert genes into bacteria to give them the ability to, for example, detect arsenic or produce vitamins.
“This follows in the heels of enormous American enthusiasm for invention that carries on in each generation,” said Scott Mohr, a Boston University chemist who is writing a primer on synthetic biology.
“This is part of the same cycle: You go out there, you’re an inventor, and you build mechanical stuff — my dad did that,” Mohr said. “You go into computer programming and write viruses and video games. Those are the parents and older brothers of people who are going to do something even more thrilling” — experiments with living things.
But the work also raises fears that people could create a deadly microbe on purpose, just as computer hackers have unleashed crippling viruses or broken into government websites.