Biotechnology for Dummies

Are garage genetic engineering labs the next thing?

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When science writer Fred Hapgood was doing research for an article on small-scale “garage” biotech labs, he received a revealing reprimand from a large-scale biotech executive:

“Articles [that] . . . suggest that much is easily doable (and it is) for little money (and it is) . . . can’t help but fire up the full spectrum of imaginations (the good, the bad, and the ugly). Taking this activity . . . into garages is the last thing we ought to be doing if we want to continue to gain greater public acceptance. That it is being done, I have no doubt, but to directly or indirectly ‘promote’ it through articles would in my view be the height of irresponsibility, at least for the foreseeable future.”

Hapgood didn’t exactly ignore the advice. Writing in Civilization (April-May 2000), he notes that “this is the kind of field that invites casual exploration—a field where ideas that come while a person is in the shower or stuck in traffic can be experimented with fairly easily.” Indeed, he adds, simply by reading a series of articles in Scientific American, one could learn “how to build many of the basic tools for biotechnology yourself.” A rudimentary biotech lab can be set up for around $3,500.

But if you find yourself imagining some high-tech, latter-day Dr. Moreau creating genetically engineered monsters in a garage on Long Island, fear not. The expected boom in garage biotech is pretty much limited to agricultural products. As Amy Roberts explains in Civilization, with animals, cloning promises to be “far more tricky and invasive”—and expensive—“than messing with plants.” The same could be said of genetic engineering. And the same, doubtless, could be said for dabbling in either cloning or genetic engineering on humans.

In June, two competing research groups jointly announced that they had completed a rough draft of the human genome. President Clinton was inspired enough to declare that “we are learning the language with which God created life.” But according to New Scientist (May 20, 2000), there are huge gaps in our grasp of that language’s vocabulary and grammar. And as Arthur B. Cody argues in Commentary (June 2000), there is a subsequent danger in trying to speak that language too soon. Newspaper and magazine reports, writes Cody, would have us believe that “there is little incomprehensible about the process. We may be ignorant of the details, to be sure, but our ignorance, we are assured, is rapidly evaporating. The theory is sound and proved, the research proceeds apace, the authorities have spoken. And what they have told us is that, though the information contained in the genome is immense, we know how it works, and we stand on the verge of controlling it.”

Not so, say both Cody and the New Scientist authors. Not only is about 10 percent of the genome “virtually impossible to sequence,” but “if the molecular drama that constitutes human biology were a movie, the DNA sequence of the human genome would be no more than a cast list—and one written in a foreign language, at that.”

Many of the genes that have been sequenced are codes for particular protein molecules, which can be seen as the actors in our drama. But from nearly the same actors—playing different roles, with different scripts and different staging—one can make either a human or a zebra fish. Among the 10 percent of unsequenced DNA, it seems, are countless regulatory sequences that control when and where genes are turned on and off. “Unless and until we know how collections of genes go together,” explains Cody, “how they combine to form organisms, whether plants or animals or human beings, we will not know what, really, we are doing when we add a gene to an existing organism, or manipulate the genes in a germline in such a way as to affect future generations.”

And if that is true for established researchers, how much more so, one must wonder, for garage biotechnicians, who risk—as Hapgood notes—unwittingly creating new, invasive species. The solution, he says, is for the large biotech firms and the swelling ranks of anti-biotechnology activists to work together, or at least to concede that they have interests in common: “The best bet for the biotech corporations may actually lie in the efforts of their activist-opponents to have huge up-front testing costs imposed on them, albeit with the ultimate goal of stopping them in their tracks” because that kind of regulatory burden would erect, for the amateur biotech researcher, a “cost barrier to entry that is presently missing.”