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Open-source genetics and the ethics of biohacking Pt. 2

by | 20 Mar 2024

With the advent of cheap DNA sequencing and synthesis techniques, modern biotechnology has expanded into a huge realm of possible use-cases. Everything from cures to cancer, custom made organs, a zombie virus to wipe out humanity, and designer babies to name a few off the top of my head. The intrigue and paranoia that emerge from these thoughts are immense, but is this concern resting in reality or fiction?

First I should outline that biotechnology is very complicated. Despite the fact that we can sequence the entire genome of any given organism (and even that has its challenges), there is still a huge, complex interaction of genetic elements that is not well understood for most organisms. As an example, a minimum viable organism genome has been made, and yet still has around 30% of the genetic elements of unknown function. Undoubtedly, this will improve to the point where we know everything in this genome. While other, more complex organisms may be equally well understand, the point stands is that we are likely to figure out all the functions and interactions of all genetic elements of the organisms that are studied (given enough time and analytical power).

Biohacking is a term used to describe something akin to a garage geneticist. The proverbial mad scientist that is free to experiment and engineer things out of site and potential naysayers and their “ethical concerns”. While right now this might be limited to altering ones gut microbiome, attempting genetic manipulation of your own cells with CRISP-Cas, or making any number of colourful plants, bacteria and fish with the ever popular Green Fluorescent Protein.

All of this is sidestepping a serious concern with biotechnology, ethics, and the ethos of open-source. At its core, biotechnology has derived its core components from nature and there are a fair number of organisations that think the continuous sharing of genetic tools and information is key to the success of biotech around the world and its positive impacts. But there lurks another side that is worth exploring. How can this technology be used badly? And how if it can, should it be restricted? The answer to the first question is an obvious “Yes.” While using biotechnology badly could mean ineffectively or for a nefarious purpose, I will be focusing on the latter. The stereotypical bio-weapon is often what pops into peoples minds, but the idea of genetically enhanced soldiers, or just a class of people that can afford upgrades could fit into this category. There is a serious concern in the public consciousness that bio-weapons have been made and used, however I, and many others think that this is not the case. Despite this, the concern is still there and many feel that the use of such a bio-weapon is inevitable. While this is a terrifying thought, lets dig into how this might turn out.

While many think that a bio-weapon is a perfect storm that will wipe out humanity, bypass any immune system or drug or vaccine and spread at record speed across the globe. When in reality, a bio-weapon (at least one based on existing viruses) would operate more like existing viruses, and be subjected to genetic drift and other genetic and biological issues as every other virus, bacteria, fungus, or animal/human. To put it simply, even with a man made bio-weapon, we would likely use the same measures to control and treat it that we already use on existing diseases (excluding the likely political and military reactions that comes from the use of weapons of mass destruction – the viral kind). Detecting and isolating infected cases, researching new drugs, vaccines, and other treatments would be used in similar ways to how we tackle SARS, Ebola, and even the novel corona virus. Not to mention the myriad of bacteria and their antibiotic resistances. The same could be said for fungi too and some particular nasty ones. Maybe another terrifying point is that there is a chance we may not find a treatment for a few select kinds that find the magic combination of genes that does just a bit better than most, and it kills a lot of people before we figure out a proper treatment plan. But with all the crazy stuff we are doing around the world in this kind of research, its possible someone comes up with the key, and maybe really fast. If the access to this information is spread across the world and there are many people working on these things, AND IF THEY ARE WILLING TO SHARE THEIR DATA, with minimal cost. Then we have a huge reserve of problem solving power that can help tackle any given problem.

It’s very paradoxical, because it feels like you’re giving someone, everyone, a recipe for anthrax. And that sounds really scary. But consider this, Aflatoxin, found in peanut butter that hasn’t been processed properly, is very similarly deadly. Made from a fungus that grows on the nuts. Many other examples exist. There is one that occurs in the common gut bacteria (with a pathogenic set of code), often it effects livestock. Most of the ones people need to worry about, also effect other animals. These can be referred to as a reservois for disease. Any animal handling is likely to be an entry point for a new disease if not properly handled. And we try our best, hopefully, to mitigate those. And mitigation strategies are expensive. A biotech lab is expensive. Some of the precision tools needed can be pricey, and a perfectly clean space to do work in is also key. Other than that its like a lot of production procedures in farming, brewing, or chemical processing

With the advent of technology. Equipment is shrinking and becoming more powerful. Starting a biotech lab is starting to look more like any growing operation. Depending on where you are on the scale of genetic engineering part. But with the advent of enzymes! Doing the very specific work, is now just a few steps away with the Biohack line of enzymes. Would you like to turn root juice into an anti cancer medication worth many thousands of your currency (Ts & Cs apply, locations may vary). Also heres your grow kit and subscription video series on everything you need to know. Thats the future baby. Corpratised biotech. Komputa’s for da bio yo. Enzymes (and many other biological products) do fucking cool things.

Say it with me. Room temperature catalysts…