Creating Frankenstein Now Possible in Your Neighbors' Garage
When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein nearly 200 years ago - before DNA, or even the basic proteins that are the building blocks of life - was discovered, she envisioned an attempt by man to play God and questioned the ethics. The basis was electricity, which had recently been discovered to be part of the life process itself.
Fast forward from 1823 and we are now living in an era where Frankenstein is quite possible, and some say already exists as we have transplanted everything from hearts to skin. Many people are walking around with body parts of another to keep them alive. My mom has a liver and a kidney, both from different people.
Thirty plus years removed from the first test tube baby, we are on the verge of a revolution in biological science similar to that of computers when people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were building first generation home computers in their garage. Technology has advanced, and applications for computers have gone far beyond accounting and number crunching of raw data.
Underground labs have been a chemists’ playground for years, steroids, bombs and psychedelic drugs are among those cooked up in such labs. Getting the idea? These people need not be sophisticated, information is widely available on chemistry and other subjects for those willing to learn how to make bombs, drugs, robots, and more. Biology and genetics have now caught up.
For less than $1000 you can choose from DNA sequencers of several types – new and used, for about $600 you can get centrifuges and other equipment necessary to separate or combine DNA materials. Check out a few science and biology magazines and see for yourself.
Without getting too scientific, you can buy Atg’s, which is basically a genetic protein-coding molecule, histones, which are the proteins that create the structure for DNA, glucose assays and even stem cells. Epitomics, a company that sells proteins and other cellular structures, was advertising a $99 antibody special in the April edition of Science magazine.
In 2010 researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany succeeded in creating a new, single cell life form. It will not be long before more complex organisms can be created, maybe even in your neighbors’ garage. In fact, several discoveries have already come from garage labs, mostly from scientists working on their own to find cures for family members’ illnesses, but many of these scientists were working out of their fields and were able to accomplish results. These people took it upon themselves to learn something new, the only advantage they had was that they already were scientist in another area and just concentrated their intelligence and confidence into another area.
While cloning and creating complex organism will eventually be done anyway, the main concern to me is the bad things that can be done with the basement labs. We have seen how many meth labs blow up. What if the amateur biologist is working with a flu virus. Why not? It is easy enough to get samples for free during the flu season, buy some equipment and you can start splicing and mixing your own custom virus. The U.S., Russia and others have already done similar things to smallpox and other viruses for military purposes. Bio terror is a real threat.
Who will monitor these labs, like the meth labs - no one. Accidents could release harmful biological agents, and some may not be accidents. Due to the chemicals involved, Hazmat treatment is necessary for cleaning up of meth labs. Biological contaminants will require possibly more extreme measures.
How about your DNA? Your neighbor may sequence that too. We leave traces of our DNA everywhere, these garage biologists won’t need to go far for samples. Imagine living near the guy who hacks your computer during the week and collects and sequences your family’s DNA on weekends, also without your permission. We are to that point now where almost anyone can steal your genetic information and do something with it. Maybe you should bring your own glass and utensils to that smart neighbors’ next barbeque.
The problem is not simple to resolve either, DNA is made up of simple proteins, widely available from nature, and the methods for bringing them together are published and technology exists to process and manipulate the materials. In other words, the whole world is basically a free store, and while these garage bio-engineers won’t be able to buy Polio or Smallpox viruses, most anything else can be obtained through either samples obtained from the public sources or purchased online or through the mail.
We have now entered an era where we can play God, creator or manipulate the mechanisms of evolution. Whatever theory you believe, we are on the brink of being able to do what was once though of as impossible.There is no turning back, the genie is out of the bottle. What we need to figure out is how to be sure people are not gathering DNA for nefarious purposes or creating new strains of diseases for the sole purpose of devastation. Questions arise of how to assure safety, not just of neighbors, but entire populations. Terrorists and others with agendas against groups or society have a new tool, potentially more devastating than making bombs or drugs.
The ability to make concoctions that target specific ethnic, age or population groups is not far from the truth in 2012, and even easier to make indiscriminate concoctions that just kill almost everyone.
Not far from now, it may not be just viruses and DNA manipulation, but the actual creation of organisms through cloning or simply growing them in a lab, is just around the corner. The Max Planck Institute has already made the turn. Someone may try to make their own army of clones, or mutate something we know into something deadly.
There is no guide or internet instructions for sensible use of technologies, so it is up to us to figure it out - before it is too late. However, with the genie already out of the bottle, and no solutions in the works, we will likely have to wait until there is a huge problem from this, to which authority will reflexively overreact and set standards. I just hope we are still alive by then.