Garage Biology in Silicon Valley

A couple of weeks ago I made a whirlwind trip to San Francisco that turned out to be all about garage biology.  I started off with a talk to the California Assembly Select Committee on Biotechnology.  Here are my slides (Carlson_CA_Assembly_February_2010.pdf), which focus on the role of small business and garage hackers in creating innovation in the Bioeconomy, and here is the agenda (PDF).  See my recent post on "Micro-Brewing the Bioeconomy" for the details of craft brewing as an example of distributed biological manufacturing.  I also did an event at the GBN for the book, and I'll post a link to the recording when it goes live.

I spent most of one Saturday hanging out at a garage biology lab in Silicon Valley.  When I walked in the door, I was impressed by the sophistication of the set-up.  The main project is screening for anti-cancer compounds (though it wasn't clear to me whether this meant small molecules or biologics), and the people involved have skillzzz and an accumulation of used/surplus equipment to accomplish whatever they want; two clean/cell-culture hoods, two biorobots (one of which is being reverse engineered), incubators, plate readers, and all the other doodads you might need.  They aren't messing around.  I didn't get into the details of the project, but the combination of equipment, pedigree, and short conversations with the participants told me all I needed to know.  That doesn't mean they will be successful, of course, just that I believe they are yet another example of what can be attempted in a garage.  This sort of effort is where new jobs, new economic growth, and, most importantly, desperately needed new technologies come from.  Garage innovation is at the heart of the way Silicon Valley works, and it is envied around the world.

IMG_0174.jpgI continue to get push back from people who assert that "it is really too hard" to hack biology in a garage, or too expensive, or that garage labs just can't be up to snuff.  This sort of dissent usually comes out of National Labs, Ivy League professors, or denizens of the beltway.  All I can say to this is -- Doodz, you need to get out more.

So why am I not telling you the who and the where for the photos above?  Because, like many garage biology hackers, they are a little skittish given the way the Uncle Sam has been off his rocker for the last few years when it comes to mis-perceived biothreats (Shoot first, Google later).  The people who built the lab pictured above are pursuing a project that is technically well beyond anything discussed on the DIYBio list, and while they may be watching the DIYBio conversation they don't advertise what they are up to.  It would be better for all of us if we could rest assured that conversations about this sort of work could proceed in the open without guys showing up in biohazard suits with weapons drawn -- Youtube, at the 00:00:48 mark.  Words fail to describe this video.  Or, rather, I have plenty of choice words to describe the quality of the investigation and planning that went into an armed assault on the residence of an art professor whose many previous public shows and events included biological technologies including hacked bacteria -- and indeed I have shared those words with the appropriate individuals in DC, and will do so again -- but it won't do my blood pressure any good to go further down that road here.

While the innocuous art professor may be back at work, and while some may view this as water under the bridge, it is not my impression that Federal law enforcement officials truly understand the impact of their behavior.  (Here, I will try again: Dear Feds, You are making us less safe.)  The response to errant "enforcement"efforts (or "career enhancement", depending on your perspective) is exactly what you would expect -- people stop talking about what they are doing, making the job of sorting out potential threats all that much harder.  I recall giving a talk in DC in 2003 or so wherein I made this point to a room full of intelligence types (domestic and foreign), and only about half of them -- predominantly the younger ones -- understood that information was their only tool in this game.  The notion that you could effectively produce safety through prohibiting garage biology and related efforts is the height of folly.  See, for example, "And the Innovation Continues...Starting with Shake andBake Meth!" for the latest on the effectiveness of domestic prohibition of methamphetamine production.  The effect is -- surprise!!! -- more innovation.  Just like it always is.  However much garage biology we wind up with, we will be much safer if practitioners are willing to discuss what they are up to without worrying about misdirected badges, search warrants, and guns. 

To be sure, I don't have reason to suspect anything but good intentions and productive work originating from the garage lab shown above.  Nor is a drug screening project likely to result in something scary.  But I certainly can't know they won't make a mistake.  I would feel more comfortable if they, in turn, didn't feel like they had to keep a low profile so that there could be open discussion of potential missteps.  This applies to individuals and governments alike: "Above all else, let us insist that this work happens in the light, subject to the scrutiny of all who choose to examine it." (PDF)  And I am waaay more concerned about what the government might get up to behind closed doors than I am about activities of individuals.  

Next week I am headed to DC for another biosecurity/bioterrorism discussion, which will be interesting in light of the recent "F" grade given to US biopreparedness by the President's Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.  See also my earlier analysis of the report.  I mention this here because the US Government still doesn't get the role of garage biology in much needed innovation (see the slides above from the talk to the CA Assembly Committee for a list of important technical advances from small businesses and individuals -- this discussion is also in the book).  Nor has the US Government clued into the PR job they have ahead of them with students who are gaining skills and who want to practice them in the garage.  Both the FBI and the Biological Weapons Commission Convention (sorry, Piers!) had a presence at iGEM in 2009 -- as liasons to students the FBI sent Agents whose cards read "Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator".  !!!Calling Chiat\Day!!!

There continues to be a prominent thread of conversation in Washington DC that "biohacking" is somehow aberrant and strange.  But apparently DIYBio, you'll be happy to hear, is a group composed of the Good Guys.  Everyone should feel happy and safe, I guess.  Or maybe not so much, but not for the reasons you might think.

The creation of a false dichotomy between "DIY Biotech" (good guys) and "Biohacking" (bad guys) lends unfortunate credence to the notion that there is an easily identifiable group of well-meaning souls who embrace openness and who are eager to work with the government.  On the contrary, in my experience there are a number of people who are actively hacking biology in their garages who intentionally keep a low profile (I am not certain how many and know of no existing measure, but see discussion above).  This tally included me until a little over a year ago, though now my garage houses a boat under restoration.  These people often consider themselves "hackers", in the same vein as people who hack computers, boats (!), cars, and their own houses.  Yes, it is all hacking, or Making, or whatever you want to call it, and not only is it generally innocuous but it is also the core of technological innovation that drives our economy.  And without direct interaction, I do not believe it is practical to ascribe motivation or intent to an individual - including and especially an incorporated individual - operating in a garage.  Thus, I strongly object to the establishment of a conversation related to biosecurity in which the term "biohacker" has any pejorative connotations precisely because it perpetuates the misconception that i) this group is quantifiable; ii) that the group has any unified motivations or identifiable ethical norms (or anti-norms); iii) that it can realistically be currently addressed (or assessed) as a "group".

Hmm...with that, I have run out of steam for the moment, and have real work to do.  More later.