Fear: DIY Scientists Will Create New Life Forms

[via live science]

Amateur biologists are goofing around with genetics in garage-based labs that some fear could unleash new and dangerous life forms.

The new effort, dubbed biohacking, harkens to revolutions in infotech hatched by individuals that founded Apple, Hewlett Packard and Google.

While, individual kitchen-counter chemists may become biohackers, the field has already become organized: One of the more serious examples is a community lab set up by a Cambridge, Mass. group called DIYbio (do-it-yourself biology). Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell said amateurs might do things as diverse as creating new vaccines to using squid genes to make tattoos that glow.

"We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game," Cowell said in an Associated Press story.

Some worry things could get out of control, with dangerous organisms escaping a lab.

"Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal location, there's no safety process in place," said Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog.

At the root of biohacking is the field of synthetic biology, which is not new. For years, researchers have been trying to engineer and build or redesign living organisms, such as bacteria, to carry out specific functions. The field is a scientific playground for the genetic code, where previously nonexistent DNA is formulated in test tubes. The promise is that the novel organisms will fight disease, create alternative fuels or build living computers.

The field "is potentially controversial because it raises issues of ownership, misuse, unintended consequences and accidental release," according to a report earlier this year commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in England.

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