Here comes the flood : DIY Bio


I’ve recently joined the diyBio mailing list – and have spent the last couple of days feeling like my head is about to explode with all the new information I’m attempting to assimilate.

I think that this is simultaneously the most life-saving and most dangerous technology there is, and it’s becoming democratised. A friend of mine in the airforce in the 80s told me that weapons were graded in terms of kill-potential… and the ranking was Biological, Chemical, Nuclear, in that order… and the one that starts with B is becoming democratised.

On the other hand among the promises of biotech are free clean energy and immortality. You think cocaine is a big seller? It’s got nothing on energy and immortality… and these technologies, although still fairly embryonic, are coming to a kitchen sink near you. It’s incredibly inspiring and incredibly exciting. This is coinciding with what I’ve called The Crowd-Sourcing of Intelligent Design… which is basically an explosion in human creativity, with the results being fed straight into a universal mind, so everyone has access to the entire genotype of a creation… and the cross-pollination of ideas that results, creates a type of evolution that leaves sexual reproduction in the dust… and that was already mind-bendingly clever.


1) you can’t control digital replication / information leakage
2) you can’t regulate people working in their kitchens
3) the democratisation of technology is a force of nature
4) the weaponisation of technology is (currently) a force of nature


The cat was always going to get out of the bag at some point. Here is the most likely scenario for the way this will unfold:

1) the public is primed by the media for a negative reaction
2) there is a statistically insignificant disaster
3) regulations are imposed, in fear and without regard for facts
4) freedoms are curtailed
5) the resulting regulation/criminalisation creates a black economy
6) entirely malign power-bases grow out of this economy
7) general publics are attacked by their own governments fighting these power-bases

All of which happens with the active collusion and lobbying of corporations wanting to monopolise these technologies and protect their “IP”, and religious organisations wanting to control the procreative process generally. (And this will (of course) lead conspiracy theorists to postulate that 2) was actually a corporate false-flag event, and they may be right)

All of which leads to a new self-perpetuating and self-serving “War on Bioengineering”. To be honest, I think you’ll need to be very lucky or very smart to avoid this sequence of events. Google “Lakoff” and give yourself a crash-course in deep-framing.

So there you go. First thoughts etc. This subject is too big to tackle in a single blog post, but I’ll sign off with the good and the bad and the ugly:

The Good:

The Bad:

See that picture at the top of this post? That’s Kapiti Island, which lives here, in New Zealand

Google Street Maps FTW!

It’s either very small or very big, depending on what you try to do with it.

It’s a nature reserve and when you visit it, you are thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly) searched… bags, clothes etc… for rats.

Kapati used to have rats you see, introduced by humans, and they massacred the native bird population. The predator-elimination program has taken 60 years and the rats were finally eliminated 6 years ago by a team of people working in a long line gradually moving up the island, trapping and killing them. This cost around 1/2 a million dollars.

It’s a big island. Zoom in on the google map and imagine what it would take to walk/crawl from one end to the other killing every single rat… not missing a single one. It’s not however as big as New Zealand itself, which is a macrocosm of Kapati, and which is far too big to control in this way. We’ve lost it. Rabbits, rats, ferrets, possums, dear, cats, mice are here, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. They have created utter havoc for native species… my dad says he has seen hills with so many rabbits on them that the whole surface looked like it was rippling.

If anyone thinks (and I know some of you already do) that a good way to fight a new species is with another new species… we’ve already tried that here with ferrets against rabbts – and it was a disaster. Fighting an exponential curve with another exponential curve is like crossing the beams in Ghost-busters. You don’t know what will happen, but chances are it will be bad.

The Ugly:

virginia lake

This is Virginia lake in my home town.

Last year there were ducks paddling about, people strolling etc one day; the next there were people with white bio-hazard suits out in boats rescuing the swans. Virginia lake experienced an algal bloom that was so dense that it looked like the ducks were paddling through Pea-Soup, and the whole thing started releasing poisonous gases (eg: Ammonia) in such amounts that the whole area had to be cordoned off. It was a mess, and it absolutely stank… and it all happened incredibly fast.

Humans tend to relate to reality in linear terms. Nature isn’t linear. I don’t think people quite get that.

Here’s what they did (click on it to see it in detail)

Virginia Lake Sign

Cost=$637,000. It worked… yesterday the water was clear to a level of about 2 metres, but it’s a process of management rather than eradication.

Now the bad and the ugly above are fairly unusual in that they happened in naturally quarantined areas. This will not be the case if someone flushes a load of contaminated agar down the sink in Woking UK. You think that this won’t happen? Get a load of this. A noxious weed choking the Mediterranean. I saw a documentary on this a couple of years back where someone made a plot of the spread of the weed, then extrapolated backwards to find the source… and it was directly beneath The Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, where Jacques Cousteau was director.

If it can happen to Jacques Cousteau then it can happen to you.

So the point of all of this, is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to create a problem than it is to solve it. The dogs that check every single person coming into New Zealand to make sure they’re not carrying fruit or meat, aren’t doing it because they’re hungry. They’re serious.

So there you go. I’m guessing that we are poised on the brink of a fairly large increase in new organisms and variants hitting our ecosystems fairly soon. I don’t see a way of stopping or even controlling DIY Bio, and I don’t think (at all, on all sorts of levels) we should try – but we do definately need some very smart people to be thinking ahead on this one. We need to become a lot better at biosphere management. Fast.

3 Comments » for Here comes the flood : DIY Bio
  1. qetzal says:

    I think a key point is that all the examples you cite involve existing organisms. None of the organisms needed any genetic modification to have these effects.

    So the question is, to what extent might genetic modification inadvertently make such problems worse or more likely. There was a substantial debate about these questions back in the 1970’s, around the time that genetic engineering was taking off in the scientific community. To a very large extent, the fears expressed back then have turned out to be unfounded.

    I think it’s far from easy to take an innocuous organism and make it significantly harmful, even intentionally. The risk of that happening unintentionally is extremely small, IMO.

    OTOH, if one had a harmful organism, one could make it more harmful by engineering it to be resistant to existing control measures. (Ex: engineering a bacterial pathogen to make it resistant to an antibiotic that’s normally used to control it.) However, that would only be likely to happen intentionally.

  2. Richard says:

    The real issue is that this is 99% scare-mongering. Most organisms that are modified need very special growth environments. I don’t suggest it, but you could pour them into the environment, and they’d just revert, or shrivel up.

    Most innovations over the course of humanity were done exactly like this… by normal people just trying new things. Also, a lot of people still do things just like this… ever made beer or yogurt at home? How about baking bread? Let anything spoil? This is all microbiology. Ever wanted to grow grocery-store button mushrooms or identify fungi in your yard? How about let a piece of bread mold? That’s mycology. Ever learn how to make a plant grow well? How about grow a carrot-top in a glass of water? That’s botany.

    Most people doing diy bio won’t make huge advances. But, one about the one who does? Certain molds literally make natural gas… What if someone breeds a superior strain, and solves the energy crisis? There’s dozens of examples that I can think of offhand…

  3. Nick Taylor says:


    Personally I am of the opinion that we already face most of the problems that might arise from creating new organisms, and we’re not dealing with them now, and a population of people who are bio-educated is the best way to create the required resilience.

    Still. For the sake of argument,

    Are we talking about introducing new species into the wild which are “better” than existing species?

    If so, then you’ve just created a disaster for the existing species – and possibly the species that depend on it.

    Having hung out on the DIYbio list for the last 4 months or so, I’d have to say that many of the people involved are dauntingly good in their fields of expertise, but have this amazing (often deliberate) blindness for potential issues arising outside these fields.

    Many of them seem to simply not get what the issues actually are. They don’t get ecology, they don’t get exponentiallity. They don’t get economics. They don’t get politics. Rather than address or even contemplate potential risk, they seek to trivialise it. They take the climate-change-denial approach rather than admit that they “don’t know”.

    Why don’t words like “most” or “99%” raise alarm bells with you?

    As to your last point, lets take this case as a hypothetical:

    Where someone created a bacteria that turned plant waste into alcohol… a “saving the world” technology, killing two birds with one stone, obviating the need for crop-burning and providing free fuel at the same time.

    Trouble is, once it got out of the barn and into the soil, it killed the plants..

    There’s your 1%. There’s the “one who does”.


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