A Canadian company is trying to make it possible for anyone to be a "biohacker" and make custom genetically modified organisms in their home kitchen.
Homemade GMOs may sound scary to some, but Toronto-based Synbiota thinks making genetic engineering technology available to ordinary people will lead to new products that we haven't yet dreamed of.
But are things really so simple? Is that a technology we really can give to anyone? And do we even want to? Those were some of the questions I had when I showed up at a "biohacking party" hosted by Synbiota in a rented ranch-style bungalow in Austin, Texas, early this year.
In between sipping cups of beer from a keg in the backyard, party-goers could use software on a laptop in the living room to design a custom plasmid – a loop of DNA – that will turn E. coli bacteria the colour of your choice.
On the kitchen table, small tubes held the DNA sequences and connectors that let people build their plasmids for real. The bacteria and DNA were then combined in a process called transformation using a special tool. They were painted onto Petri dishes and popped into an incubator near the TV. By the next night, colourful spots were starting to appear on the plates.
Cool, maybe, but to me it wasn't obvious why ordinary people would want to do that.
To explain, Synbiota CEO Connor Dickie pointed to the history of computer science. Today, even 12-year-olds can write cool little apps that make music or other things "that would never be conceived by the computer science PhDs from the '50s, '60s and '70s."
He envisions a similar revolution in biology.
"A lot of fear around GMOs today is in my opinion based out of people that don't have an understanding of what a GMO is," he said, adding that part of the problem is that genetic technology has mainly only been accessible to researchers and big corporations such as Monsanto.
"This technology puts the same power in your hands," Dickie said. "We're making it possible for artists and designers and teenagers and mothers and students and educators to do real genetic engineering."
His view is shared by "biohacking" enthusiasts like Derek Jacoby.
"Most people in the community don't have a sense of what's possible and how they would go about learning about it," said Jacoby, one of the founders of Biospace, a community biotech lab based in Victoria.
Once people understand biological parts and treat them like electronic components, said Jacoby, a former Microsoft engineer, "they get this amazing sense of empowerment: 'How would I create my world out of the parts of life?'"
Non-scientists may come up with more creative answers to that question, suggests Orkan Telhan, an assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania. He uses Synbiota's kits to teach his design students about biological design.
"Biologists are not designers. They are not thinking of synthesizing new things. They're trying to explain certain things," Telhan said.
Designers, he added, are interested in doing things like creating organisms with colours that don't exist in nature or that emit new kinds of smells, or plants that generate electricity, or new kinds of food, inks or cosmetics.
If the idea of teenagers and artists designing genetically modified foods and cosmetics seems slightly scarier than creating a new iPhone app, perhaps it should.
Marc Saner, director of the Institute of Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, said a key difference between information technology and biotechnology is that the former isn't expressed as a physical entity and doesn't have the same potential to do physical harm. In addition, with biotechnology, "if it self-replicates, persistence of the risk is an issue."
Dickie says the E. coli in Synbiota's kit is a particularly weak strain.
"If they were to leave the Petri dish, they're really not going to take a foothold in your kitchen," he said.
Vincent Martin, Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering at Concordia University, agrees that it's unlikely anyone could do much harm with Synbiota's kit, any more than anyone could build a bomb with a home chemistry kit.
"It has huge limitations in terms of what you can do with it," he said.
Martin says that in the world of DIY biology in general, "things are too difficult and too regulated now for anyone to do any harm at all."
On the flip side, he is skeptical that a kit like Synbiota's could easily lead to anything really innovative and creative.
The standard kits, which start at $395 US, come with only a small number of genes for innocuous things like different colours. They don't even come with equipment like Petri dishes, pipetters or an incubator that were used at the party (although Dickie claims that regular dishes, the kit's own containers, and an incandescent light bulb for heat, if you can still find one, will also do the job).
Both Jacoby and Telhan say that while you theoretically can modify the bacteria at home using the kits, you do need a lab setting to get things to work consistently and controllably.
Synbiota is now beta testing a "parts creation kit" that lets people add a custom piece of DNA, but that's a complicated procedure that starts with buying a custom DNA sequence from a DNA synthesizing service – something that's regulated.
Martin said it would ultimately cost a lot of money to develop your creation, scale it up, get through regulatory hurdles and then market it.
"The capacity to push it forward will take more than small hacker groups, I think," he said. "But it's still a good thing, you want people to be innovating and brewing ideas and thinking. The idea is to try and capture the good stuff there is and see if you can push it farther."