Biotechery Revisited

So about a year and a half ago, there were all these things on TED by biotech people who all got standing innovations because it looked like they were going to save the world… and around the same time, the DIY bio thing started to make waves. I joined the DIYbio list for a bit – then got into flame-wars with the people there so left… I don’t think I’d ever encountered a cleverer bunch of stupid people (or vice-versa) in my life. What they knew about biology/org-chem was pretty incredible – but balanced by their willful (or not) blind-spot regarding ecology.

The only convincing argument I came across re: the dangers of introducing new organisms into our life-support system is that “we already have all of the problems that new creatures might create, and we aren’t taking them seriously now, so why worry?”

Personally I don’t think you can (or should) stop information-flow… and that means tech-advancement… I don’t think that scientists should have to sit around and wait while fucking old “ethicists” hold irrelevant debates etc. I think we need to protect ourselves through diversity – and by having highly (and specifically) educated populations. So I’m in favour of it all… even though I think that there are a fair few DIYbio people too stupid not to fuck it up. These are the same sorts of people who thought it would be a good idea to introduce rabbits into NZ and Aus. Then thought it would be a good idea to introduce ferrets to control them. Got a problem? Introduce a new species. Got 2 problems?

Still… long time coming. Every 5 years, our lives are changed by a software development that nobody had even imagined. Every 5 years. The Biotech Revolution on the other hand, has been en-route since the 70s, and I still can’t think of a single incidence of it that I’ve actually seen anywhere… Frankenfoods? Actually I haven’t noticed the difference. Good times are-a-comin… but they sure comin slow.

So that’s all the negativity out of the way.

Still… this guy’s from the future:

Cathal Garvey demonstrating Do-it-Yourself DNA extraction in a tent from smarimc on Vimeo.

The combination of temporary shelter, and hi-tech/low-tech DIY/FAB machines has “future” written all over it (sounds like Vinay in the background as well if I’m not much mistook :)). Favela Chic and all that… it needs to be chic. Our physical systems evolve/conform to the needs of our information-systems… and whatever moves the fastest wins. We still have the roads of the Roman Empire, our cities today are built around the needs of cars – I’m sure there are loads of other examples, but it’s a general rule. As George Lakoff will tell you, “learning” involves physically changing brain structure. As above, so below.

So it’s the early 21st C. What’s to come? Dunno… but one thing you can bet, is that we’re going to have physical structures who’s specific purpose is to route around the obstructions created by 20thC institutions holding onto the past.

Or to put it another way, Favela Chic ain’t just going to happen because people are poor. It’s also going to happen because it’s the only place you can get anything done without retards from the past trying to get in the way. A place where lawyers can’t find you, and if they do, you can kill them.

A little sci-fi maybe, but if biotech comes anywhere close to what we’re imagining it might do (with our sub-5-year imaginations) then the drivers are going to be insane. Exxon gave $600,000,000 to Craig Venter. Give me the Napster of that.

So tents I think. And hi-tech/low-tech DIY/FAB machines.

Check this out:

Synthetic Bio Documentary: Transgenic Spidergoats Brief from Field Test Film Corps. on Vimeo.

It’s from the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award in which someone attempted to make bullet-proof material using spider-silk… which has fairly remarkable tensile properties… and they did and they didn’t succeed in that, but check out how they made it. Goats milk? Holy crap!

Won’t someone think of the kids!!! – what happens to them if they drink spider-protein milk? They get all spidery and frightening? Will it fuck with their minds and cause them to climb trees?


The clip above is from a to-be-made documentary about synthetic bio – which has been (successfully) funded on Kickstarter

I get a bit of a chill whenever they talk about “companies” doing stuff… I mean I’m a company director and I do know that a company is kindof a sensible package for getting stuff done – but… you do know that companies are essentially psychopathic right?

And the other thing is – in my experience, if you try to broach the issue of “what happens when you introduce a species that can out-compete the native species” to people doing this stuff… they don’t seem to understand the question – it’s like talking to libertarians about social-policy. All you get is really simplistic justifications of something they’ve already decided – it’s not even theory. It’s not even hypothesis. It’s wishful thinking.

Now I’m not imagining goats spinning webs, but spider protein in goats is not micro-biology.

I feel like I’m being a little over-acidic here – the DIY guys are nice people… but… “what happens when you introduce a species that can out-compete the native species”?

Apropos of that, there’s an exhibition in Belgium at the mo, where someone has made a garden/biosphere thing of a collection the alien, invasive (non)-EU species.


People visiting it have to dress up in white coats like proper scientists etc, because people are the ultimate contaminating species. It’s in a tent.


Ok, it’s not in a tent – it’s in a gallery of some sort by the looks. It was set up in May (finishes tomorrow) and in the words of the writer of the link above

“Verdonck’s garden opened in May and looked like a little piece of Eden. All lush flowers, green parrots, colourful plants, cheerful amphibians and mysterious moustachioed fish. When i visited the show a week ago, the place was still jaw-dropping but in a rather post-apocalyptic way. It felt a bit desolate. Good care was taken of the fauna and flora but the flowers were perishing, the parakeets had to be taken away because they were wolfing on any flower or fruit they could get their beaks on, tadpoles were vanishing, etc.”

Balancing biospheres is fucking hard – I know, I used to do it when I was a kid. The Axolotls eat everything.


The same axolotyls that are nearly extinct in their natural environment in Mexico, because… of introduced species.

1 Comment » for Biotechery Revisited
  1. “Our physical systems evolve/conform to the needs of our information-systems” Concise, big-picture, and why I read you. Brilliant frightening post.