Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 7. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert.
First off, I have a quick personal update.
Project Gecko, Book Two in the Lara Kingsley Series, came back from my editor last Monday. Good news: He likes it. Expected news: We can make it even better. As many of you know, I’m working with a developmental editor, Clark Chamberlain. He is the kind of editor who helps authors with plot, character arcs and development and any other story elements. It’s expensive, but I find it to be a smart investment in my future as an author. He helps me see my strengths and weaknesses as an author.
I’m also revamping my website to prepare for my podcast launch. I bought a new WordPress theme from Artisan Themes to make my site look more professional. I was so nervous about activating the theme that I waited for a whole week. It was really kind of silly, the amount of anxiety I expended over making the change. Last Sunday, I finally pressed activate, and I’ve been working to leverage the cool features of the new theme. Artisan Themes support has been amazing, so I highly recommend to anyone considering updating their look.
Let’s talk tech news. Today, I’m getting up on my soap box and am giving you fair warning. I would remind you that these are solely my own opinions. You’re free to disagree with me, and I’m happy to have a debate.
The headline for this week is from the New York Times on May 14 by Emily Baumgaertner: “As D.I.Y. Gene Editing Gains Popularity, ‘Someone Is Going to Get Hurt’”. The article opens by saying, “After a virus was created from mail-order DNA, scientists are sounding the alarm about the genetic tinkering carried out in garages and living rooms. Across the country, biohackers — hobbyists, amateur geneticists, students and enthusiasts — are practicing gene editing, concerning some bioterrorism experts.”
Of course, it’s exciting to see the New York Times cover one of the current issues I find important, but this title and the intro are examples of sensationalism at their worst. Even if it raises some valid and important issues, this article was poorly researched and misleading. It appears that the journalist hand-selected a few examples of scientists behaving badly and scary expert quotes to support her bias that DIY Bio is dangerous. And that, is a disservice to humanity. Am I exaggerating? No, actually I’m not.
Ms. Baumgaertner states in her article: “Authorities in the United States have been hesitant to undertake actions that could squelch innovation or impinge on intellectual property.” Yes, and there’s good reason for that. The majority of innovation in biotechnology is going to come from these start-up efforts. Breaking news: government and big industry are no longer leaders in developing cutting edge technology.
Microsoft and Apple were started in garages and working with technology that would soon change the world. We could also say that the Internet is dangerous and someone is going to get hurt. The Internet was originally created to allow university researchers to communicate and share information. Even though cyberspace has its risks, and the risks are growing, most would argue that our lives have vastly improved as a result of interconnectedness.
The United States has become a world leader in technology because of the start-up innovations coming out of Silicon Valley and other technology hubs. Who is to say that the next cure for a disease won’t come from a garage? What if we could finally understand where, when, how and whys of cancer? What if we could solve the diabetes epidemic with gene editing?
Yes, we need to ensure adequate safety and security practices across the DIY biology community and inculcate a culture of responsibility. But Ms. Baumgartner draws strong links where there are none, and her article may mislead the general public about DIY Bio leading to a backlash against a community that will contribute to improving society. This is not what journalistic reporting is supposed to do. This is not the balanced reporting I would expect from a newspaper like the New York Times in an era of fake news.
Okay, let’s dissect my problems with the article.
This article starts by referencing research conducted by scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada to piece together the genome of the horsepox virus. Over the course of six months, scientists ordered fragments of DNA of the virus by mail and then put them together to recreate the virus in a lab environment. The project cost about $100K. For most of us, this sounds like a lot of money, but for science, this is considered cheap.
For my non-scientist listeners, here’s a bit of background info. All living organisms have a DNA code referred to as a genome. We are now able to cheaply sequence genomes and individual genes found in the genome. Sequencing refers to the reading of the DNA code that makes up the genome for a living organisms.
When a genome is sequenced, the DNA code is read and then converted into ones and zeros. This is the digital binary code that can be processed by computers. This data is called “genomic data” and can be stored in databases, used in computer modeling programs, and transmitted by email. Yes, we can even send DNA code by email. In fact, there’s a growing catalog of genetic information on the Internet including information on gene sequences, gene functions, and the full genomes of organisms.
Gene synthesis does the opposite of sequencing. It translates the digital code to the original DNA sequence to physical DNA material that can be used in the lab to produce the source living organism. Researchers no longer need a physical source of DNA to manipulate it or study it. They can find a sequence online and have it chemically synthesized by a growing number of companies.
This is like Jurassic Park 2.0. In the novel, scientists extracted DNA from dinosaur blood found in mosquitoes preserved for millions of years in amber. But scientists still need a physical sample to clone dinosaurs. Now imagine, all you need is a computer file containing the genome of a living organism.
And that’s what these researchers did. The Canadian scientists conducted their experiment with the aim of developing better vaccines and inferred the make-up of the horsepox virus genome from the published literature. They ordered sequences from a synthesis company and pasted the gene sequences together, inserted the DNA into a living cell and recreated the virus. When they published their results, this caused a heated debate throughout the scientific community about the conduct of responsible science.
Horsepox is not harmful to humans, but the implications of the study for national security were profound and indicated that making the variola virus which causes smallpox could be cheap and easy. Smallpox was formally eradicated in 1980, and there are only a few known existing physical samples of the diseased stored in the U.S. and Russia.
I’m concerned about this type of research and bad guys having access to results online. But let me be clear, this research was conducted by scientists at a university and has nothing to do with the DIY Bio community. This is the nature of how science is conducted. Scientists share their results so that others can test them and build upon them.
This is the same process that led to the development of nuclear weapons in the 1940s. James Chadwick discovered the existence of the neutron, a subatomic particle with no charge, found in the nucleus of atoms in 1933. The neutron became the key to unlocking the energy stored inside the atom. In 1934, Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, conducted an experiment in which he bombarded every element on the periodic table with neutrons. Previously, scientists were using protons, positively charged subatomic particles, but they would often rebound off of the positively charged atoms and not find a way in.
When Fermi got to uranium, something interesting happened. Fermi assumed that he had transmuted uranium or transformed it into a heavier element. But he had actually caused a uranium atom to fission, releasing smaller elements, neutrons and energy. Nuclear physicists around the world studied his experiment, and eventually Otto Hahn, Lisa Meitner, and Fritz Strassman concluded in 1938 that Fermi had produced the first nuclear fission. That finding sent a ripple throughout the scientific community and led to Germany’s early interest in nuclear weapons.
I hope you get the point. Although I’m concerned about the horsepox experiment and what it could mean for national security, this is how science works. And now, we’re conducting science in the digital age, not during the 1940s when scientists had to travel overseas to conferences by boat for three weeks to learn about developments in their field. But during an age where we can transmit genetic information at the speed of light.
Okay, deep breath and back to the article.
Ms. Baumgaertner writes: “Many experts agree that it would be very difficult for amateur biologists of any stripe to design a killer virus on their own.” She suggests that it is only a matter of time before this is possible.
Yes, it’s true that the risks will increase in the future as the volume of genetic information, knowledge and capabilities increase. However, why would amateur biologists want to make a killer virus in the first place? Ms. Baumgaertner is confusing capability with intent. They are not the same thing, especially not in our current age of emerging technologies.
Just because we can do all sorts of bad things with emerging technologies, doesn’t mean that more people will do bad things.
Finding a scientist with sufficient skills and a passionate desire to do bad things is rare. And I think this comes down to the character of scientists in general. These are the types of people who are so curious about how things work that they want to spend their lives understanding the fundamentals of life and matter and advancing our collective knowledge. Scientists like to know things, and they get an incredible amount of joy from knowing things. These people are typically not the sort to be so profoundly angry at the world that they want to destroy it.
Timeout – Confession time. Bionic Bug involves a rogue scientist leveraging gene editing to assist with his revenge plot against the U.S. government. I understood that for a scientist to cross this line, I needed to establish motive. I needed to make his actions appear reasonable from his point of view. But this is also fiction.
Let’s turn to reality for an instructive example. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult, tried to develop biological weapons in the 1990s to bring about Armageddon and eventually succeeded in using chemical weapons, the nerve agent sarin, to cause death and injury, most famously on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Several members of Aum Shinrikyo were trained scientists. The group benefited from an estimated billion dollars worth of assets and a safe haven in Japan. Religious groups benefited from a high level of protection from interference by law enforcement. The Aum scientists gained access to two vaccine strains of Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax from a veterinary lab. They also tried to grow botulinum toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. They attempted to use biological weapons on more than ten occasions. Each time, they failed to produce any illnesses, most likely, because they had failed to acquire and produce a virulent strain of the bacteria.
Okay, back to the issue at hand. Ms. Baumgaertner’s piece is supposed to be about the DIY Bio Community, but she didn’t do her research.
Ms. Baumgaertner includes a quote from the FBI and mentions them befriending biohackers, but doesn’t directly mention the FBI’s extensive outreach effort to the DIY Bio Community led by my friend and colleague, Ed You. All it would take is a single Google search to learn about this. She doesn’t mention that FBI WMD Coordinators are working to raise awareness across the DIY Bio Community to report any suspicious activity they come across in their interactions. This outreach works because almost all DIY Biologists are doing biology because they love science, not because they wish to harm others. Why doesn’t she cover this in her reporting?
She released her article on Twitter with a provocative Tweet about Dr. Josiah Zayner a biohacker who holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics at the University of Chicago. She tweets: “That celebrity biohacker who straps a GoPro camera to his forehead and streams experiments on himself from his garage? Yeah, even he’s concerned.”
Dr. Zayner, a former NASA scientist, is still best known for injecting himself with gene therapy to make his muscles bigger. It didn’t work. Last year, Dr. Zayner admitted that he regretted doing it and hoped it wouldn’t lead to dangerous experimentation. Throughout the article, despite referencing his time at NASA and his scientist credentials, she refers to him as Mr. Zayner. Why?
That celebrity biohacker who straps a GoPro camera to his forehead and streams experiments on himself from his garage? Yeah, even he’s concerned. Here’s my latest for @nytimes on the path to a D.I.Y. pandemic: https://t.co/lKnM0N3efR
— Emily Baumgaertner (@EmilyJBaum) May 14, 2018
She even quotes his colleague Dr. George Church from Harvard as saying “If they’re willing to inject themselves with hormones to make their muscles bigger, you can imagine they’d be willing to test more powerful things,” he added. “Anyone who does synthetic biology should be under surveillance, and anyone who does it without a license should be suspect.”
A simple Google search reveals that Dr. Church is listed as a business and science advisor for The Odin, the company founded and run by the so-called celebrity biohacker, Dr. Josiah Zayner. Why does Ms. Baumgaertner pit these two scientists against each other in a journalistic article when they’re not working against each other? Maybe she prefers writing fiction…
Ms. Baumgaertner does raise an important feature of many emerging technologies. Biology is not alone in its DIY community. In fact, there’s a vibrant 3D printing and drone community. Instead of focusing in on gene editing, we could also talk about 3D-printed plastic guns or use of drones to deliver illegal drugs across borders. But disease does inspire such fear in the hearts of the general public. It’s just more click-baity.
What is the DIY Bio Community and what are they doing? A growing number of people around the world are “doing biology as a hobby.” They are tinkering with biology the way Steve Jobs and Bill Gates tinkered with computers. With the assistance of the Internet, which facilitates communication and sharing, DIY biology has become a movement of sorts. And what makes it special is that it is independent from the government, academia or industry and increasingly takes place in shared lab spaces.
This is citizen science. Everyone is allowed to participate and contribute, regardless of expertise or training. These amateur biologists splice DNA and program bacterial to create genetically engineering organisms.
Ms. Baumgaertner attempted to write a piece about the DIY Bio community, but fails to understand it even at superficial level. As a result, her article will inspire fear rather than intrigue. This is not balanced reporting and is a disservice to the creative individuals who may someday cure a major disease from their garage.
I’m getting off my soap box now… I hope you enjoyed hearing me all fiery and passionate.
If you enjoy the show and would like to support my time and costs of producing in show for only a few dollars a month, please go to www.patreon.com– p a t r e o n / natashabajema
Last week, Lara stopped by her friend Maggie’s lab to drop off the bionic bug. Maggie knows about DARPA research on strapping microelectronics to insects to control their flight. She also notices something peculiar about the beetle’s mouthpiece. She thinks it was genetically modified to allow it to bite humans and transmit disease. Detective Sanchez shows up and pulls Lara out of the lab and to the police station for questioning. Let’s find out what happens next.
Let’s go behind the scenes.
I love this scene, and Detective Sanchez is one of my favorite characters. This scene introduces the back-and-forth tension between him and Lara, which will be an ongoing source of conflict and amusement in the series.
Since I went on a rampage in my intro, I didn’t get to talk about another news headline from futurism.com on May 16: “This Cute Little Robot Fly Is The First Without A Wire.”
If you’re following the story of Bionic Bug, you might have asked the question: why use live insects? I’ve elaborated on the advantages of using insects in past episodes, but this article announces a new game-changing development.
Researchers at the University of Washington invented the RoboFly, the first wireless robot insect. I’ve discussed before that the main obstacle to producing robotic insects comes down to energy. The flapping of wings consumes a huge amount of energy, and small platforms were unable to carry their own energy supply. These researchers have overcome this obstacle with a solar cell and laser.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.