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The Dangers of Hype in Biosecurity

In presenting the idea that anyone can and should have the means to do biology, DIYbio, peoples reactions have been consistently polar. Either they are extremely excited about all the possibilities or fear that this movement could cause an increase in unsafe or even illegal things.  Differences in opinion are not exactly a rare thing where science is concerned. In fact I’d argue pretty strongly that they are an integral part of the scientific process. But only when those opinions are based on a strong understanding of the underlying science.

IMG_0213 Elephant painting on bacteria. Winter is Coming?

Sadly my experience, after teaching a number of public bio workshops and classes, tells me that most people lack even a basic understanding of biology. On multiple occasions I’ve found myself explaining to fairly well educated people (Phd’s in other science fields even) concepts I thought were common knowledge. DNA’s are not proteins, strawberry ATCG’s are the same chemically as Human ATCG’s,  even that we have bacteria in us. This of course is not an argument for there not being any risks associated with DIYbio. One might even say that such a lack of understanding is reason enough to restrict the tools needed to do real biology, lest some amateur accidentally cause harm. Which seems a bit backwards to me. “Don’t teach people how to make fire, because they don’t know how to make fire and won’t understand it”.

I say all this to make you aware of the current state of public understanding of biology and that the majority of fear towards a wider dissemination of the tools of biology, stems primarily from a lack of understanding. And that such a knowledge gap makes the wider public extremely perceptible to misinformation, either accidental or nefarious. Which could result in a backlash towards biology which would be far more harmful than any real risks. It is to combat that hype and detail the actual risks that I am writing this article.

What’s the dual use of a can of spaghetti-O’s.

Montezuma's Revenge

Dual use refers to products and technologies normally used for civilian purposes but which may have military applications. The idea that the tools to do legitimate biology are the same tools used to develop that if anyone has the knowledge and means to do biology in their garage, then ipso facto anyone would have the ability to do bioterrorism in their garage. Journalists and Biosecurity “experts” usually personify this potential for dual use by telling the tale of the “Garage Bioterrorist”.  Sometimes they even spice things up by adding a bit of Synthetic Biology into the mix. “What if anyone had the tools to create a synthetic super pathogen?” It’s a terrifying thought for sure… if you don’t realize that an improperly sealed  can of spaghetti-O’s could result in a deadly strain[Clostridium botulinum]. While that probably doesn’t make you feel better. The bitter truth is, increasing access to lab equipment would likely not increase the potential for people to create bioweapons because deadly strains are more readily cultured by miss cooking food.

Mother Nature is really, really good at developing bioweapons.

This is almost always my first thought when people come to me with worries of a rogue bioterrorist using knowledge gained from DIYbio or SynBio to do wrong.  The Spanish Flu killed more people than both World War I and II combined, and it only took 3 years.  Even today the United States alone spends $10 billion a year protecting itself from Influenza. Overall infectious disease is responsible for 23% of all deaths. So limiting the amount of people with the tools to study disease for fear of some possible attack is a bit like making sure your doors locked while your house is on fire. While this isn’t a direct response to the risks of human created bioterror, I feel it’s important to frame it in light of the real threat to biosafety, Mother Nature.

Biologists know less than they say they know, which is even less than the news says they know.

If the headline reads “Breaking: New Cure for Cancer!”, you can almost always be certain that what actually happened is a scientist found a certain compound or method to be effective in combating a specific type of cancer in a petri dish. Which is really only a very small indicator of a potential real cure. What works in a petri dish doesn’t always (read: usually never) work in an animal model, much less humans. But sadly, plain facts don’t make for exciting news stories, and so things get embellished.


To be fair, researchers are pretty guilty of embellishing the scope of their work as well. If you want to do a study of a specific pathway, it doesn’t hurt your chances of securing funding, to frame it in the light of “looking for a cure”. In any case, all the hype leads to an over-inflated opinion of what biologists can actually do; with the full support and backing of a university and funding agency. So when you read a story reporting on what scientists have done or are capable of, either positive or negative, it’s essential to read it with a heaping mountain of salt.

Biology is complicated. Bombs are not.

Even if by some means, some “bad actor” is able to develop a novel virus or bacteria that works well in the lab, the second they release it into the wild there is no guarantee it will have the effect they want, if any at all.  There is nothing stopping evolution from simply turning their super virulent and pathogenic vector into a more fit non-pathogenic strain. It’d be impossible to effectively trigger, predict, much less control the outcome of a bioweapon. Where as a bomb is easy to build, the materials can be sourced from any hardware store and the outcome is predictable.

Tl;DR: People are actually inherently Good.

In pitching people the idea of Brightwork, giving ANYONE access to the tools needed to create cures for diseases. One of the most consistent worries brought up by potential investors was “How will you keep people from using the lab to for wrong doing?”. At one point someone even suggested I put a video camera in the wet lab.  I just stared at them, completely dumbfounded and I almost snarkily asked them where one buys video cameras with objectives strong enough to differentiate good/bad vectors. But instead I explained that an open lab, works the same way all labs work, on trust and some level of proper safety protocols. Protocols designed to protect from accidents, not some terroristic threat.

I’ve met thousands of people interested in doing biology and hundreds actively researching, and almost all are motivated by two things: scientific curiosity and the desire to have a positive effect on the world.  In 50 years, when technology progresses to the point where general access to the ability to create bioweapons becomes a viable threat, I will feel much safer in that distant future if all research and technology is shared openly. Because most people want to do good, and when that “Synthetic Super Pathogen” is created wouldn’t you want as many people as possible with the ability to create a cure for it?


EndNote: If you are interested in reading more about legitimate and real biosafety and biosecurity concerns, I strongly recommend reading The UNICRI’s “Security Implications of Synthetic Biology and Nanobiotechnology” It is by far the most thorough and factual writing on the subject. [for some reason the public version is abridged]. As well the wilson center just released a report detailing the “Myths of DIYbio” that is worth a read.

Indie Science Case Study: Cathal Garvey

It is my goal with these Indie Science Case Studies to show that becoming an independent researcher or science entrepeneur is not some insane, impossible undertaking. Taking the traditional route to research, you have a lot of role models to follow and the hurdles one will face, while still difficult, are clearly mapped. The path to becoming an independent is not so clearly laid out. Hopefully by hearing from those who’ve already made the leap as independents will help others follow their lead.

Our first interview is with Cathal Garvey, founder of IndieBiotech and biohacker extraordinaire.

Tell us a little about what you are currently working on.

Cathal:I’ll have to be circumspect. I’m not patenting things, so I have to be a little secretive, at least until its finished. My main project is an open source vector that was built from scratch using only b. subtilis dna that doesn’t require antibiotic selection. Though it’s on hold at the moment until I can re-order some more [DNA] synthesis. As soon as that arrives, we will be resuming testing, which was going well, to verify that it works as designed.  I’m also developing a patent free means to purify arbitrary proteins. It’ll be a drop in replacement for affinity methods commonly used like nickel affinity chromatography. Because of the patents, the price of reagents for using these methods is prohibitive.  I’m hoping to develop a lab in a suitcase, that will contain biobricks, some enzymes like polymerase and ligase. And from that suitcase, you’re able to build any biologic you want.

What got you so interested in science? Biology?

Cathal: Childhood outdoors I suppose. I’ve always known I wanted to be a scientist, specifically genetics. When I was 11, I saw a documentary on genetic engineering and that was it.

What is your educational background?

Cathal: Aside from primary and secondary, and some summer schools. I got a bachelors from the University of Cork in genetics. I post grad in cancer, integrative targeting gene therapy. Found that I was disillusioned with the way research gets done. Academia is excellent at finding answers but not very good at finding solutions. So I left to take on biohacking as a career.

What inspired you to take a non-traditional route?

Cathal: I’ve been exposed to enough anecdotal examples of science being left by the wayside. I’ve seen for my self a lot of really good projects not get a chance over political or bureacratic stuff. One example is antibiotics in Africa, it’s really expensive, not for any scientific reason.  It’s cause we approach the problem as “How do we white saviors get our medicine to those poor Africans.” This makes no sense.  Science should have delivered antibiotic yoghurt ages ago. The science is there, I could do it tomorrow if you give me a lump of cash. Also the funding cycle means research has to be compartmentalized into blocks. This requires researchers to publish 10 bad papers filling the gaps with fluff instead of one good one. The whole culture and the inability to divorce science from publication. At the time of this disillusionment I encountered diybio and bioart; you had grassroots science on one side and rebellion on the other. Science is getting cheaper.  But a lot of the methods that we use to make things aren’t quite there yet. I’d like to pave that way. And if I cant make it as an Indie my self, I’d like to at least leave a brick road for others.  I am not a libertarian. But dealing with the bureaucracy in academia can be crushing to freedom. Science should be, I have a good idea, I have a good question. what does it take to get an answer. That is what motivated me.

How do you get funding for your work?

Cathal: Originally I didn’t. I was operating out of savings and from an allowance my wife gave me. She gave me a year to see if I could do it. I had [my lab] mostly kitted up. I had done the math, [DNA] synthesis costs X and if you can sell 2X then this some. Just basic math, this looks like something you could do if you’re thinking like an engineer. Pure science requires you to find a way to monetize or patronage. I’m not going down that route. This past year had a lot of distractions, dealing with regulators took half a year, I thought it’d be a month. My daughter was born. And I still hadn’t required outside funding. Project was showing some progress. I gave a talk at coder dojo and afterwards an investor contacted me. There was a lot of back and forth before accepting since this has to be open source ultimately even if it failed. So now I’m paying myself a salary. The investment route is certainly more comfortable. If someone didn’t have a complicated family or license [i.e. Irelands GMO laws]. It’s still possible to put together something from pocket money. Then sell at a fair price $50, when your costs were $1000 gene synthesis. That’s not bad. Especially for a project of this complexity. The cost of making the cell is minimal you get to keep that all as profit.

Any advice you’d like to share?

Cathal: I would say, I’ve seen some great ideas ruined by patents. From the sellers perspective. They patent then try to sell it at a reasonable rate to a company or investor. So now your costs are no longer that $1000 price of synthesis, you have the cost of the patent itself plus the cost of the lawyer. But predominately it’s the psychology. Once you get the patent, now you have to convince partner that your patent is sufficiently better to warrant their time and money. You may not get the same investors but consider a more modern way of business. Creating 1patent is not enough anymore. Keep inventing. If you can invent one thing you can invent a million.

The Age of the Independent Researcher

Science used to be the pursuit of rich gentleman with nothing better to do and no hunger pains to get in the way of questioning the why’s and how’s of the universe. Great breakthroughs could be and were made by singular individuals acting alone. With the advent of Universities, anyone with the desire and a certain level of intelligence could become a scientist, not just rich greek gentleman.  Today there are more scientists researching than at any other point in human history and tomorrow I will be able to make the same claim. Just by sheer numbers it’s a pretty safe bet that science, as in the cumulative knowledge of humanity, will continue to advance at an increasing pace. Yet this pace is not as fast as it should be.

There is a flaw in the traditional route to research. Traditional scientific institutes are not optimized for scientists willing to question the status quo. Risk and failure while essential to developing cutting edge science do not lead to tenure or a raise.  As a result, an increasing and needless amount of focus within the scientific community is being placed on IP, publications, degrees and award.

A place where anyone can come to research and do so full time. Each CoResearch facility will accomplish this by providing access to equipment, funding, education, and most important of all collaboration.

The first CoResearch Space is called Brightwork and I hope you will join us in making it a reality.


Jacob Shiach