January 25, 2009
Home Genetic Engineering: What Happens When Its Easy?

Homemade do-it-yourselfer genetically engineered organisms are still pretty difficult for hobbyists. But some people are already fiddling with the genetics of organisms at home.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

Now let us get into our time machines and travel ahead 20 years. Microfluidic devices will be cheap and open source software for controlling them will be downloadable on the internet. What's to stop people from genetically engineering bacterial, algae, and other organisms?

Look at all the invasive species that humans have moved across geological barriers that previously kept them away from many habitats. Lots of species are on a tear as they spread out in a habitat where they bring big genetic advantages that give them competitive edges. Lots of native species get outcompeted in Hawaii, Australia, and lots of other locales around the globe. Humans will be able to create new species that'll basically do the same thing.

Big species are not the problem. Sure, in popular science fiction movies T.Rex or a Raptor rips apart a bunch of people. But big species make big targets for rifles and fishing harpoons. Plus, lots of guys would love to hunt down the genetically engineered dino that is terrorizing suburbs. It is the littler ones that are too numerous to easily control that pose the bigger threat. Genetically engineered species could really upend whole ecosystems by being very effective at outcompeting other species.

Scientists have discovered some of the genetic variations that make influenza strains more lethal and will in time identify genetic variations that make other pathogens more or less dangerous. Therefore another future threat comes in the form of a genetically engineered massive killer pandemic for humans. The same sort of threat exists for other species. Imagine a flu that would kill most sheep or cows or pigs. Or imagine some genetically engineered pathogen that would wipe out assorted wild species. This will probably become technically doable.

These threats are hard to prevent because the level of skill and amount of resources needed to do genetic engineering will go down each year for years to come. A small number of malcontents or cult believers could cause enormous damage with genetic engineering.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 January 25 10:52 PM  Dangers Bioengineering

Xenophon Hendrix said at January 26, 2009 2:38 AM:

A while back, Thomas A. Easton wrote a pretty fine short story covering some of what you are talking about. He has made it freely available on the Web. (I'm reasonably sure it really is him, so read without guilt.)

kurt9 said at January 26, 2009 8:30 AM:

The best defense against the decentralized threat of home-based bio-terrorism is a decentralized network of bio-hackers who can immediately work to develop an antidote the moment an lethal infectious agent is detected. A decentralized network of 10,000 biohackers will work much faster and far more effectively than the dysfunctional bureaucracies of the CDC or UN's WHO, thus saving many more lives. Think of the open-source Linux model.

truk said at January 26, 2009 2:38 PM:

Nope, kurt. That would be way too late. Counter measures take time, and bio weapons once developed start killing right away. You can limit the damage but 10,000 or 10,000,000 biohackers can't stop an effective bioweapon before it takes a huge toll.

People from the bum on the street to the bum in the White House are in total denial about this threat.

Brett Bellmore said at January 27, 2009 4:47 AM:

Any reasonably inventive engineer can devise cheap and easy ways of killing on a large scale. Yet, how often do you hear of office buildings exploding after somebody's box-walk? You can turn a building into a fuel air bomb for maybe $20 in parts, you know, but it doesn't get done.

We are fortunate that for the most part people intelligent enough to do this sort of thing don't WANT to do this sort of thing. And the people who do want to do it lack the intelligence. Witness Hamas, no shortage of killing intent or budget, and the best they can manage are not very glorified fireworks, when any RC hobbyist could turn out *guided* bombs quite easily. UAVs aren't that hard to construct if you don't demand long loiter times.

Governments, which can convince smart people that working on how to mass murder is a reasonable thing to be doing, are still the primary threat.

Eventually, though, I suppose you'll end up with *somebody* who combines smarts and the desire to kill, to whom bio-weapons sound fun. There are high-functioning sociopaths, after all, and they don't all go into politics. More likely is a deadly result of somebody trying to be clever in a positive way, like people dying of fat soluble vitamin overdoses because of a clever contagious "cure" for vitamin deficiencies.

The key defense is enhancing human bio-diversity, and genetic engineering is the key to that. Also, as gene sequencing gets cheaper, we're going to have to set up some kind of contagion "weather stations" which do wholesale sequencing of everything that comes their way, and sets off alarms if anything suspicious shows up, BEFORE people start dropping.

Wolf-Dog said at January 27, 2009 5:49 AM:

We are fortunate that for the most part people intelligent enough to do this sort of thing don't WANT to do this sort of thing.

WHEN both intellectual ability AND state-controlled indoctrination were combined in Germany before and during WW II, the result was that even the majority of intelligent German scientists and engineers were very much in favor of inventing, building and using all sorts of deadly weapons. There were some exceptions such as Heisenberg who intentionally exaggerated the difficulties of building a nuke, but he was one of the few exceptions. The majority of even very intelligent people will fall pray to indoctrination, if it is state-controlled and combined with total censorship of any rival information.

In other words, your theory that most intelligent people are not dangerous, is only partially correct, in the sense that you are looking only at the American and (current) European society. But there are many parallel societies which are psychologically totalitarian in their upbringing.

Wayne Conrad said at January 27, 2009 6:24 AM:

What Happens When Its Easy?

Moves towards totalitarianism. People will allow--or even ask for--their rights to be infringed upon to attempt to thwart anything perceived as a threat. There are numerous examples in the US from recent history to draw from.

coggieguy said at January 27, 2009 2:38 PM:

The movie "Quarantine" had just this scenario. The strange ass scientist up in the attic was a doomsday cult member and he created the zombie virus. Or consider "12 Monkeys" - same whacko bioterrorists try to wipe out the earth. Add this to the list of why we don't observe other intelligent species in the universe -its not that civilizations create black holes in the lab that consume their planets, its unstoppable plague that does the trick.

dennymack said at January 27, 2009 2:44 PM:

When HGE is cheap and easy some uses will be in vanity and popular culture:
We will see the counterculture ravers with their glowing skin via bioluminescent organisms.
Drug dealers will have algae vats manufacturing the active ingredients of the more marketable recreational drugs. Like meth labs, but totally organic, dude.
Well off suburban moms and celebrities will have their "tummy-buddies" that consume calories for them.
Pet allergies will be avoidable.
More waste disposal will be done by biological filters based on toxin specific bacteria.
Somebody will mess with intelligence in companion animals, others will be alarmed by this.

Question for Brett: What does "box-walk" mean?

Bob Sykes said at January 27, 2009 2:53 PM:

Even when it was first developed in bio labs, it was obvious that this was kitchen sink chemistry: you needed real skill and knowledge, and some of the chemicals were real scary, but the equipment needed was what any home brewer had. The kits really reduce the skill and knowledge needed, but if you can run a meth lab you can do genetic engineering.

Laissez les bon temps rollez!

DowlanSmith said at January 27, 2009 3:29 PM:

box-walk: to be escorted from your cubical to the front door by a security guard while you are carrying a cardboard box with all your personal items.

Javert said at January 27, 2009 4:21 PM:

Thanks for the story link X.Hendrix.

steven Caplan said at January 27, 2009 5:19 PM:

Frank Herbert wrote a book, the White Plague, where a scientist loses his family due to IRA terrorist, financed by Libya. He responds by unleasing a plague that kills all women in the two countries (and then spreads).

Thus, motivation for doing such a deed is easily imaginable, as is the technology...

AST said at January 27, 2009 5:19 PM:

Boy, this is reaffirming my faith in Biblical prophecies.

pst314 said at January 27, 2009 7:06 PM:

On a somewhat less grim note than speculations about engineered plagues, here is something SF writer Gene Wolfe wrote in his book Castle of Days:

"Wait until genetic engineering really gets going and someone questions the need for separable mounts and riders. Fighting centaurs! (Sometimes it almost seems as if the Greeks...)"

Robby said at January 27, 2009 9:37 PM:

Wayne Conrad said:

Moves towards totalitarianism. People will allow--or even ask for--their rights to be infringed upon to attempt to thwart anything perceived as a threat. There are numerous examples in the US from recent history to draw from.

And that totalitarian government will collapse. Such bioweapons will enable individuals to wipeout without mercy entire police and army battallions at will. You can't have a functioning totalitarian nation-state when its enforcers become easy to defeat.

TS Alfabet said at January 28, 2009 5:54 AM:

what about the extremist environmentalist movement? There you have what is for some a kind of religion that would supply the fanaticism (cult/group-think etc..) combined with some very, very intelligent (well, otherwise intelligent) people with bio backgrounds. There was a fiction book written several years ago that posited this very thing: an exclusive enivro group developed a deadly virus that only worked in humans. Their plan was a sort of Noah's Ark thing where they gave the antidote only to their select members who would survive the world-wide plague and emerge after a year or two from secret safe-houses to re-populate the "new world" but this time in a nice, eco-friendly way.

th said at January 28, 2009 4:11 PM:

I worry way less about this than what these global warming nuts are capable of,

Valkyrie said at January 31, 2009 5:04 AM:


"People from the bum on the street to the bum in the White House are in total denial about this threat. "

The 'bum in the White House' knows more about and has talked more about biological terrorism than all republican candidate combined.

One of his top defense advisers is Richard Danzig, his main interest is biological terror and proliferation I think, he was considered for secretary of defense or deputy secretary of defense for a while.

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