Ten years ago, in the speculative New York Review of Books essay “Our Biotech Future,” Freeman Dyson imagined a time when lifeforms, not just startups, might be hatched in garages, when reptile breeders could fashion designer lizards and children could create their own playthings. He believed the genetic future was fast, cheap and perhaps out of control. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous,” he acknowledged. An excerpt:
I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.
Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.
Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.
Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.
If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.•
That biotech future is arriving in a hurry now, even if it’s only in the larval stage, not yet thoroughly decentralized, a development, should it be realized, that will present tremendous promise and peril, perhaps saving the species or assailing it with existential threats. Most likely is both those outcomes materialize in simultaneity. These first baby steps unsurprisingly involve CRISPR. In Annie Sneed’s Scientific American piece “Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA,” the author finds that the risks and rewards of DIY biology are currently small—but we’re only at the beginning.
“We aren’t going to get sick, are we?” my roommate Brett asked me. He cringed as I knelt down and stuffed a plate of E. coli bacteria—which came as part of the DIY CRISPR–Cas9 kit I bought online—into our fridge next to cartons of eggs, strawberry jam, bottles of beer and a block of cheese.
“No, we won’t. The label says ‘non-pathogenic,’” I replied, trying to sound assuring. But honestly, I had no clue what I was doing. I nudged all the food up against the fridge wall, and left a two-inch border around the plate of living cells—a no man’s land between the microbes and our dinner. A couple inches probably would not stop the bugs, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
CRISPR–Cas9 (or CRISPR, for short) has given scientists a powerful way to make precise changes to DNA—in microbes, plants, mice, dogs and even in human cells. The technique may help researchers engineer drought-resistance crops, develop better drugs, cure genetic disorders, eradicate infectious diseases and much more. Ask any biologist, and they’ll likely tell you that CRISPR is revolutionary. It’s cheap and effective, and in many cases, it works much better than older methods for making genetic modifications. Biologists will also tell you that CRISPR is very easy to use. But what does “easy to use” mean?
I am not a DIY scientist, much less a professional scientist. You won’t find me swabbing my cheek cells for DNA or tinkering with yeast in a lab on the weekend. But I wondered: Is CRISPR so easy that even amateurs like me can make meaningful contributions to science? And also, does this new technique make gene editing so accessible that we need to worry about DIY scientists cooking up pandemic viruses in their basements? If you Google ‘DIY CRISPR,’ stories such as “What Happens If Someone Uses this DIY Gene Hacking Kit to Make Mutant Bacteria?” pop up.
I attempted to find answers to all these questions myself, starting with the plate of bacteria in the kitchen of my San Francisco apartment.•