Thoughts on Open Biology

A story at LinuxDevices last year on a report from the Committee for Economic Development (CED), recommending government use of "open source" and "open research", prompted me to collect the following thoughts on Open Biology.

I've changed the entry in my category list for this blog from "Open Source Biology" to "Open Biology".  Despite unleashing the phrase "Open Source Biology" on the world six years ago, at this point I no longer know what Open Source Biology might be.  Perhaps Drew Endy still has a  useful definition in mind, but as I try to understand how to maintain progress, improve safety, and keep the door open for economic growth, I think the analogy between software and biology just doesn't go far enough.  Biology isn't software, and DNA isn't code.  As I study the historical development of railroads, electricity, aviation, computer hardware, computer software, and of the availability of computation itself (distributed, to desktop, and back to distributed; or ARPANet to Microsoft Office to Google Apps), I am still trying to sort out what lessons can be applied to biological technologies.  I have only limited conclusions about how any such lessons will help us plan for the future of biology.

When I first heard Drew Endy utter the phrase "Open Source Biology", it was within the broader context of living in Berkeley, trying to understand the future of biology as technology, and working in an environment (the then embryonic Molecular Sciences Institute) that encouraged thinking anything was possible.  It was also within the context of Microsoft's domination of the OS market, the general technology boom in the San Francisco Bay area, the skyrocketing cost of drug development coupled to a stagnation of investment return on those dollars, and the obvious gap in our capabilities in designing and building biological systems.  OSB seemed the right strategy to get to where I thought we ought to be in the future, which is to create the ability to tinker effectively,  perhaps someday even to engineer biology, and to employ biology as technology for solving some of the many problems humans face, and that humans have created.

As in 2000, I remain today most interested in maintaining, and enhancing, the ability to innovate.  In particular, I feel that safe and secure innovation is likely to be best achieved through distributed research and through distributed biological manufacturing.  By "Open Biology" I mean access to the tools and skills necessary to participate in that innovation and distributed economy.

"Open source biology" and "open source biotechnology" are catchy phrases, but they have little if any content for the moment.  As various non-profits get up and running (e.g., CAMBIA and the BioBrick Foundation), some of the vagaries will be defined, and at least we will have some structure to talk about and test in the real world.  When there is a real license a la the GPL, or the Lesser License, and when it is finally tested in court we will have some sense of how this will all work out.

I am by no means saying work should stop on OSB, or on figuring out the licenses, just that I don't understand how it fits into helping innovation at the moment.  A great deal of the innovation we need to see will not come from academia or existing corporations, but from people noodling around in their garages or in start-ups yet to be founded.  These are the customers for Biobricks, these are the people who want the ability to build biological systems without needing an NIH grant.

But Drew Endy (Biobricks) and Richard Jefferson (CAMBIA) have as primary customers not corporations, hobbyists, or tinkerers, but large foundations and governments.  The marketplace in which Biobricks and CAMBIA compete for funding values innovation and the promise of changing the world.  At present, they do not derive the majority of their funding from actually selling parts or licenses on the open market, and thus do not rely on sales to fund their work.  Nor should they.  But the rest of our economy operates on exchanges of money for goods and services.  Synthetic Biology will get there some day, too, but the transition is still a bit murky for me.  The Bio-era research report, "Genome Synthesis and Design Futures: Implications for the U.S. Economy", of which I am a co-author, points to the utility of Synthetic Biology and Biobricks in producing biofuels, vaccines, and new materials.  However, the implementation of the new technological framework of genome design, enabled by large scale gene synthesis and composable parts with defined properties, is still in the offing.

Janet Hope has made an initial study of the state of Open Source Biotechnology in her Ph.D. dissertation at Australia National University.  Janet gives the following definition for her project:

"Open Source Biotechnology" refers to the possibility of extending the principles of commerce-friendly, commons-based peer production exemplified by Open Source software development to the development of research tools in biomedical and agricultural biotechnology.

This project examines the feasibility of Open Source Biotechnology in the current industry environment. In particular, it explores:       

1. Whether it would be possible to run a viable biotechnology business on Open Source principles, and

2. What such a business might look like, including the application of specific Open Source-style licences to particular classes of biotechnology research tools.

Janet's book on the subject is due out later this year from Harvard Press.  My book on all of this stuff is, um, not finished.

The CED report  "concludes that openness should be promoted as a matter of public policy, in order to foster innovation and economic growth in the U.S. and world economies."  I think this bit, in particular, is very interesting (quoting from the LinuxDevices story):

  • Open Innovation (such as 'peer production' systems like WikiPedia and eBay user ratings)

    • To foster open innovation, federally funded, non-classified research should be widely disseminated, following the example of the NIH (National Institute of Health)
    • "Any legislation or regulation regarding intellectual property rights [should be] weighed with a presumption against the granting of new rights ... because of the benefits to society of further innovation through greater access to technology."
    • The NSF (National Science Foundation) should fund research into "alternative compensation methods, similar to those created to facilitate the growth of radio, to reward creators of digital information products"

The first point is a bit off, since most NIH sponsored research, as a practical matter, available only through subscriptions to the journals in which it is published.  This will slowly get fixed, however, with increasing publication via the Public Library of Science and similar efforts.  The second point, embodied in patent reform, will probably take forever and will be hobbled by vested interests.  The third may not produce useful results for many years.

So here we sit, needing much fast innovation in biological technologies in order to produce carbon neutral fuels, improve human health, and deal with emerging threats such as SARS and pandemic influenza.  Open Biology is part of that, somehow, but I still don't see a clear path to implementing the ideas within the context of the real economic system we live in every day.