Ramblings: "On Regulation" by Andrew Ellington

Andrew Ellington, Fraser Professor of Biochemistry at UT Austin, has recently published an opinion piece in The Scientist concerning garage biology, synthetic biology, hype and regulation. His main points seem to be:
  • Synthetic biology is nonsense and nothing but a hype, a fantasy
  • Garage biology is nonsense and nothing but a hype, a fantasy
  • The analogy of early computer garage innovation and early biotech garage innovation is nonsense and nothing but a hype, a fantasy. Ellington and his fellow students considered it 30 years ago. They found it impractical then, therefore it's nonsense for all eternity.
  • All this hype and nonsense is threatening the work of real scientists by making authorities go into a panicked regulation frenzy
I do agree that there's a lot of hype and fantasizing going on, and I'm not sure I'm buying into the whole BioBricks-approach to biological engineering. And yes, BioBricks-style synthetic biology may turn out to be biology's Artificial Intelligence. And again, yes, careful with basing your regulatory work on a collective fantasy.
Generally, though, I see a couple of issues with Ellington's text.

First thing: He's jumbling together things that would better be treated separately, namely synthetic biology and the molecular biology/biotech garage culture. Yes, many of the garage biotech enthusiasts are fascinated by the idea of a biological equivalent to an Arduino. But that's not the only thing DIYBio is about. It's also a culture that's about taking part in the current developments that will probably transform society in one way or another, with a hands-on spirit. Another undercurrent seems to be a certain scepticism towards and disillusionment with today's system of academic research. Ellington's display of (self-identified) verified-old-person patronization is really not helping with that.

The article has the whiff of the idea that the future is essentially the same as the present, just a bit later. But it isn't. Example: Would a 70ies IBM representative have been able to predict the whole mess of web application security or the considerable black market for identities, credit cards, botnets and exploits that we're dealing with today? Probably not. William Gibson did, but he was a novelist, who is in the business of, well, you know, fantasizing and informed nonsense.

Ellington goes on to explain why the analogy between early computer garage innovation and today's garage biotech is a mirage:
The difference between DIY Bio and Michael Dell putting computers together in his garage is the difference between the availability of the raw materials. There is no 'Radio Shack' for DNA parts, and even if there were, the infrastructure required to manipulate those parts is non-trivial for all but the richest amateur scientist.
Try googling "DNA synthesis" and just pick one of the sponsored links. Then take into consideration that "non-trivial" does not usually deter someone overly enthusiastic, young, and unverified. And then imagine that a tight budget can be a motivator to come up with alternative routes, or that there are, in fact, moderately wealthy amateurs out there who have the means and motivation of pooling resources, and who'll be happy to share and let others use their infrastructure.
In short: I'm not convinced by that argument.

As a closing statement, Ellington imparts the following:
But can we at least leave out this part of the conversation, the notion that there could be a black market because folks who hook up platinum electrodes to car batteries and pour agarose gels in Play Doh molds might someday actually create a bacterium that converts glucose to gold?
Now, see, that's exactly the kind of condescension that drives overly enthusiastic, young, unverified people to antagonize academe, adopt a "Fuck you, I do what I want" stance and create the very underground that Ellington finds so cute and unrealistic.
It happened in IT, where it contributed to the genesis of today's black hat culture, parts of which now fuel the world of organized computer crime. So tread carefully.


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