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Does anyone have any good ideas on how we might mitigate the negative consequences of this technology?

I recently dismissed the problems of people printing firearms in a 3d printer as not really being much of a threat as currently firearms are already ubiquitous. However having a potential personal bio-weapon design lab on your desk, would seem to suggest were are entering a whole new paradigm in dangers to humanity and our biosphere.

As an example and a serious question: why won't someone eventually create a virus tailor made to target their enemies? Whether that's an entire race of people, an individual or a family.

The genie is definitely already out of the bottle so I guess the only solution is better defences. We're going to have to get good at identifying threats (possibly in real time) and be able to create effective solutions near instantaneously. Or isolate ourselves in self sufficient habitats as a precaution.

In my mind's eye I can see Bill Joy tapping his watch and saying "Any minute now ..."

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html




> Does anyone have any good ideas on how we might mitigate the negative consequences of this technology? (...) The genie is definitely already out of the bottle so I guess the only solution is better defences.

Agreed. Rob Carlson [1] argues in "Biology is Technology" [2] that regulation can't form an effective means to mitigate threats by limiting access to skills or materials, and that we should instead invest in the ability to develop rapid responses.

Further, he argues that the costs imposed by regulation on skill and material acquisition would weight most heavily on small firms, where most of the industry's innovation originates, thus slowing the very progress we need.

I highly recommend the book, as a review of recent (as of 2010ish) SB developments, comparison to other engineering disciplines, and for a treatment of how the regulatory/IP landscape could best support innovation in biotech.

[1] http://www.synthesis.cc/ [2] http://www.amazon.com/Biology-Is-Technology-Business-Enginee...


Maybe you would find these FBI/DIYbio transcripts helpful in answering your concerns.

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/fbi-diybio-2012/

http://diyhpl.us/wiki/transcripts/fbi-diybio-2011/

Before reading those, and before you think to attribute all plagues and disease or suffering to the non-institutional biology crowd, I would like to point out that the world is already full of deadly viruses. The "natural" death rate from (for example) influenza is >0. This is already a huge problem, but not one caused by the "negative consequences" (presumably of developing technology to work with biology) you alluded to.

Edit: also, connor needs to stop spamming synbiota stuff all over the place


I accept that the world is already a biologically menacing place however it isn't yet full of all the virus that are currently being conceived in my head.

For example I might decide I really don't like the Jews (hypothetical). I could probably find out what DNA is common to most Jews, design a virus to target this commonality and couple it with something nasty that already exists, or that I just invented and release it into the population perhaps by infecting my gentile self and booking a flight to Jerusalem.

Your tone suggests that you're a bit bored by this conversation. Are you yourself satisfied that the risk of disaster is acceptably low?


> Your tone suggests that you're a bit bored by this conversation. Are you yourself satisfied that the risk of disaster is acceptably low?

Sorry, my perspective is very unusual. First, whether or not a nation-state bans biology (perhaps because of some precautionary stance) will not dramatically change whether or not I continue to work on technology development. Second, I already find the current level of death and disease unacceptable, and risk calculations don't help me fix things. I'm just completely uninterested in risk calculations.

Edit: I was being somewhat unfair to your original post, which I had judged to be more alarmist than it actually was. I agree that mitigation strategies are important.


I recently dismissed the problems of people printing firearms in a 3d printer as not really being much of a threat as currently firearms are already ubiquitous.

Your reasoning on guns was correct. Remember how almost every year we worry about what kind of influenza we'll get? We all worry about a repeat of the 1918 flu, which is quite likely on any given year.

Remember how antibiotic resistance keeps getting worse and worse (or better and better from the bacteria's perspective)?

HIV originated in nature, probably somewhere not too far from where Ebola is natural brewing now.

Our number one threat is mother nature. Her and other humans living close to domestic and wild animals around the world and air lines.

At any given time we might have to cope with an 1918 like flu.

Custom tailoring a virus to include one people but not other is going to be extremely hard. We are all very closely related. Human conflict tends to be between neighbors, and for example the people most genetically similar to the Israelis are the Palestinians. So the probability of a custom tailored virus is far, far, FAR lower than the probability of a natural don't-give-a-crap-who-it-kills virus.


from this(it's from [1]): http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/files/jewpc3.jpg

it seems that Ashkenazi jews are quite distinct from Palestinians. there might be a small overlap between the groups(upper right corner), but a terrorist could still target a specific subgroup of the ashkenazi jews. and using more principal components might get him a better separation between the groups.

[1]http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2009/01/how-ashkenazi...


the same tools that would trivialize creating such a virus would also trivialize a cure.


I'd disagree, I think it is a lot easier to create a virus that wantonly destroys life than it is to create a cure that puts everything back together. I could email out a script that just executes "sudo rm -rf /" on everyone's computer, and it would probably ruin a lot of people's lives.

Additionally, cures by their nature will always lag behind diseases, people won't invest resources curing a disease that doesn't exist. A non-trivial amount of damage would occur before society reacted to the threat.


The parent's reasoning would probably apply more to a vaccine than a cure.

Also, it's not illogical for there to be a demand for (research into) protections against threats which have not materialized yet, but seem to have a chance of doing so. As the prospect of portable bioweapons becomes more likely, there will be increased incentive to come up with protections from those weapons, even if they have not yet reached viability.


Great question! - I'm glad that folks are thinking about safety, and that it's part of the conversation here.

Earlier this Summer I was invited to attend the FBI/DIYBio outreach event in Walnut Creek, CA. (Disclosure: I'm co-founder of http://synbiota.com - we provide web-based tools and crowd-innovation environment for SynBio) Of course, one of the biggest take-aways from this meeting is that very special attention needs to be payed to how we manage safety.

The simple fact is that right now the ability to create a "Select Agent" (catch-all term for bad biological things) from scratch using this technology is currently out of reach of anyone in the DIYBio scene. That said, it may be just a matter of time until technology gets to the point where it is possible.

There are positive uses for having access to DNA code for a Select Agent, e.g. creating a bio-sensor that will warn us against contamination, or creating an antidote to the offending agent, so it may not be in our interest to completely ban this DNA code.

The good news is that in SynBio we've not created anything from scratch - all that we know comes cribbed from Mother Nature's recipes. Knowing this, each biologic has it's own DNA signature that can be used to screen out any potentially dangerous projects before they are synthesized.

This is just scratching the surface of this question. A great resource to learn about the ethics surrounding SynBio is the SynBio Project by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars: http://www.synbioproject.org

Interesting side: When we were at the FBI/DIYBio outreach event we all received a deck of Pokemon-style "Select Agent" playing cards, which are pretty unique. We have some pics of them posted on our blog: http://synbiota.posterous.com/tag/playingcards

Some people think these cards are a bit creepy, while other's can't get enough of them! I'd love to hear HN's thoughts on this!


We actually have created a few things from scratch. Specifically I'm thinking of Top7, a protein that a friend of mine works on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top7

Protein design is an exciting field.


Indeed it is! I did not know about this project - thanks for the link.


The big gene synthesis companies are all a part of the international gene synthesis consortium, which has loose set of guidelines that include gene sequence screening (eg: every order is screened against a database of known pathogens, toxins, viruses, etc.).

granted this is a hard problem (similar to the difficulty of fingerprinting computer viruses). So while synthesis prices are still relatively high, simple fingerprinting will probably suffice for now. There will probably be a lot of development of more advanced machine learning algorithms to detect dangerous sequences as it becomes more and more of a threat in the future.


> The big gene synthesis companies are all a part of the international gene synthesis consortium

Yes, they screen against one of the UK's lists of unauthorized individuals. At least, this was according to Howard Simon (dna20) when he mentioned it at the FBI/DIYbio workshop.

I was curious to see if anyone from DIYbio was on this list, so I did what any self-respecting hacker would do and wrote up some quick code to check... here's the details:

https://groups.google.com/d/msg/diybio/zarj-c5I9bs/UJ3zAotVK...

The good news is that nobody from the amateur communities seem to be on that list of excluded individuals for synthetic DNA.

disclaimer: I like to pretend I am working on an open-source microfluidic DNA synthesizer, which negates all their efforts and warps my perspective.


It's good to know that some thought and consideration has gone into safety. Though this does just seem like a temporary measure that will keep the white hats in check. The goals of a lot of these companies is democratization. Would you agree that all the steps of the organism creation process will (in short order) be achievable in private, for good and for ill?

Personally I do think we will need some sort of active technology for protection and we shouldn't put much stock in the efficacy of legislation. We haven't been able to legislate away criminals, and we only need one criminal/virus live in the population to do an inordinate amount of damage.


> and we only need one criminal/virus live in the population to do an inordinate amount of damage.

Those already exist. This is why you get sick and die. Welcome to the exciting career of medicine.


One defence that is already in place occurs at the DNA printing level. Because of the cost of this equipment, most DNA printing is outsourced to third parties. These guys compare the DNA you send them to that of known pathogens like Anthrax and if your DNA matches they won't print it. There are many other people thinking about this space and what other safeguards we need, one of the main ones is the early detection system you talk about... with cheap DNA sequencing on a future iPhone maybe this will help!


The scary part is not the regulated market, but rather the black market. What happens when an unscrupulous mafia family starts doing DNA printing-for-hire?




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