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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 7, 2010

More on Garage Biotech

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Posted by Derek

Nature has a good report and accompanying editorial on garage biotechnology, which I wrote about earlier this year.

. . .Would-be 'biohackers' around the world are setting up labs in their garages, closets and kitchens — from professional scientists keeping a side project at home to individuals who have never used a pipette before. They buy used lab equipment online, convert webcams into US$10 microscopes and incubate tubes of genetically engineered Escherichia coli in their armpits. (It's cheaper than shelling out $100 or more on a 37 °C incubator.) Some share protocols and ideas in open forums. Others prefer to keep their labs under wraps, concerned that authorities will take one look at the gear in their garages and label them as bioterrorists.

For now, most members of the do-it-yourself, or DIY, biology community are hobbyists, rigging up cheap equipment and tackling projects that — although not exactly pushing the boundaries of molecular biology — are creative proof of the hacker principle. . .

The article is correct when it says that a lot of what's been written about the subject is hype. But not all of it is. I continue to think that as equipment becomes cheaper and more capable, which is happening constantly, that more and more areas of research will move into the "garage-capable" category. Biology is suited to this sort of thing, because there are such huge swaths of it that aren't well understood, and there are always more experiments to be set up than anyone can run.

And it's encouraging to see that the FBI isn't coming down hard on these people, but rather trying to stay in touch with them and learn about the field. Considering where and how some of the largest tech companies in the US started out, I would not want to discourage curious and motivated people from exploring new technologies on their own - just the opposite. Scientific research is most definitely not a members-only club; anyone who thinks that they have an interesting idea should come on down. So while I do worry about the occasional maniac misanthrope, I think I'm willing to take the chance. And besides, the only way we're going to be able to deal with the lunatics is through better technology of our own.

Comments (34) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Biological News | Who Discovers and Why


1. coprolite on October 7, 2010 8:30 AM writes...

Garage biotech? More like garbage biotech. No, I think you had it right, garage biotech makes more sense.

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2. Wavefunction on October 7, 2010 8:37 AM writes...

I am sure you have read Freeman Dyson's thoughts on this (for instance in "The Sun, the Genome and the Internet"). He has always believed that the 'domestication of biotechnology' is going to be on the horizon, just like the domestication of computers was a couple of decades ago. We live in interesting times.

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3. Mistake on October 7, 2010 9:35 AM writes...

So if meth was legal, you'd be OK with your neighbor setting up a lab next door to your house? This sounds completely irresponsible to me. Mistakes here could have serious consequences in the household, the neighborhood and the environment. Brew beer, help your kid with their science fair project, but I don't need some nimrod genetically engineering bacteria next door to me thanks!

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4. LacertaBio on October 7, 2010 9:38 AM writes...

Fantastic! This is a great way to introduce kids to real science (not the stuff they teach in middle schools). It's better to spend money on used lab equipment than video games and laptops. And why not? If a hobbyist can build computers and solar cells in their garage, why not clone something? You don't need expensive equipment to do good, interesting work.

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5. RTW on October 7, 2010 9:45 AM writes...

Have a read of Greg Bear's "Quantico", and Frank Herbert's "White Plague". I have read at least one other novel I believe by a noteworthy mystery intrigue author who's name and title excapes me at the moment. All lay out very probable bioterror examples. Frank Herberts novel, I thought highly unlikely at the time, but we have made large strides in Biotech since that was written.

I think garage biotech is potentially far more dangerous than garage chemical labs which the governmenet really takes a dim view of. Hell in some states if you have the glassware they arrest you. The automatic response is you are making drugs, Bongs, bombs, or poison gas.

I have to beleive that things could easily get out of hand in a Garage Bio Lab. If a virus, in an industrial lab accidentally was exposed to a worker (You have covered this before) where very careful protocols and rules are in place what happens in a garage lab where there are no rules, proceedures and shortcuts are taken?

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6. PTM on October 7, 2010 9:53 AM writes...

3: "... but I don't need some nimrod genetically engineering bacteria next door to me thanks!"

Neither do bacteria, billions of them continually re-engineer their genomes not only next door to you but also in your home, on your skin and in your gut.

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7. processchemist on October 7, 2010 10:15 AM writes...

A "Fringe" like scenario, and I hope is improbable like most of the science in the TV serie.
A jobless scientist trying to build a start-up in his garage (typical silicon valley style) would not be a problem. A 16 y.o. young nerd without proper training, with informations gathered from the internet, would be a concerning case.

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8. RB Woodweird on October 7, 2010 10:18 AM writes...

The benevolent attitude of the FBI will last only until the first time a Pakistani-American kid is caught with a suspicious Petri dish.

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9. Virgil on October 7, 2010 11:02 AM writes...

This (BioCurious) was covered a few days ago on the sugru blog ( I'll recycle my comment from there, since I think it sums up my thoughts on this nicely...

The biggest problem with this kind of endeavor, is that most of the scientific equipment that’s out there on eBay etc. is there for a very good reason - its broken! Getting this stuff fixed (or worse, paying for a service contract) can be very expensive.

The other problem is that many of the reagents are classified as “dangerous” by our lovely government, so sourcing these things can be difficult if you don’t have a private channel through a University or other body. A lot of companies simply do not sell to private individuals.

A third issue is safety. I’m really not sure I want my neighbor searching for a cure for Ebola virus in his garage! There are humongous safety regulations that Universities and other labs have to meet, and bypassing all of this can put the public at risk of some pretty nasty exposures. Just simple questions like what to do with waste plastics from human cell culture lines? I don’t want that stuff entering the regular trash stream (vs. being incinerated if the research is done at a University).

A final problem (one that is thankfully changing in recent years) is information availability - i.e. just getting the library and journal subscriptions to keep ahead of the competition. I can’t live without my University’s library subscriptions, affording me free access to all the best journals. To pay for this access out of ones own pocket would be prohibitively expensive. I know a lot of smaller pharma companies struggle with this (judging by the # of reprint requests I get from colleagues in such companies).

I’d be interested to hear how Biocurious deals with these significant problems.

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10. gronk on October 7, 2010 11:36 AM writes...

I'd hope that biotech suppliers do the same checks on their orders: if you see somebody ordering safrole plus dimethylamine or 3,4,5-trimethoxybenzaldehyde plus LAH, or some 2,5-dimethoxysubstituted compound plus LAH, you'll know what they're up to.

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11. Hap on October 7, 2010 12:02 PM writes...

The potential for malwetware is possible, but possible with anything. I worry more about the cleanup costs - if professors with reasonable and lower-cost infrastructures for cleaning up their messes are unwilling to do so, I don't think people doing garage biotech are necessarily going to do so (or, at least, that a significant number of them likely will not). While the previous owners can probably be pursued after the fact, the unfortunate person who buys his home from a less-than-fastidious garage biotecher is likely to be comprehensively screwed, let alone his neighbors. In addition, while chemical wastes are a notorious problem when people do chemical research and don't care what happens to their leftovers, chemical wastes don't multiply or mutate.

It also seems less-than-convincing to trumpet the safety of academic institutions, but they probably are likely to have the appropriate infrastructure to contain threatening or unknown organisms. Glove bags and cheap equivalents might help, but overall I can't see the containment being as good for a home lab as elsewhere.

What people create with biological tools could become a permanent part of the lanscape, and so their research should probably be treated with an appropriate level of caution and containment.

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12. Matt on October 7, 2010 1:09 PM writes...

If you live in the USA, your neighbors can already store gallons of propane, acetone, gasoline, trichloroethylene, and other various volatile, toxic, and/or flammable materials in their garages as fuels or solvents. They can also store thousands of rounds of ammunition plus bulk black powder and nitrocellulose for reloading. If your neighbor has a swimming pool, watch out for hydrochloric acid and/or calcium hypochlorite too. There's guaranteed rapid release of chlorine gas if those two should meet by accident, plus substantial risk of spontaneous and toxic fires if the hypochlorite meets a wide variety of household organic materials.

Ether's in over the counter starting fluid intended for use in cars. Acetone and toluene are already sold over the counter for use as paint solvents. If you're running a garage lab, or just cleaning paint brushes or working on your car in that same garage, a spark or water heater pilot light could have the same consequences.

I've read a fair number of articles in the past two years about garage biology and none of it sounded more dangerous than what undergrads can do in school. So why assume it's leading to apocalyptic accidents and/or deliberate acts of terror? If the same OSHA and EPA standards that apply to institutional labs apply to your neighbor's garage, kitchen, or basement, shouldn't they apply to your garage, kitchen, and basement too? Hope you've got the patience and money to comply.

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13. An Onyx Mousse on October 7, 2010 1:29 PM writes...

If someone screwing around could create something that the average person's immune system can't handle, we would all be dead already. ~1 billion years of evolution has already primed us for the major viable disease vectors. Also, bacteria-world is a saturated population in the environment. Any escaping bugs would have to out-compete some pretty bad-a$$ wild species in order to even make past the door of the garage without getting eaten by phages, yeasts, fungi, etc.

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14. Hap on October 7, 2010 1:55 PM writes...

1) Where do I dump used media? For most standard solvents, pesticides, and home chemicals, cities have places to dispose of them. If enough people want it, I guess cities could do that too, but they don't yet, and I don't know if there are private companies to remove bioproducts. The cleanup for biolabs is unlikely to be equivalent to that for standard homes, because the hazards differ and because there are fewer companies to handle them.

2) As noted, gunpowder doesn't multiply. Or mutate. Looking at the advent of biotech crops, things are hard enough to control with plenty of money and safeguards, and it's hard to see that fewer safeguards and more people will work out better.

3) I don't know if it's within the means of home biolabs, but lots of countries have worked on making bacteria and viruses against which evolution has provided no defense. The Russians had a rather large infrastructure designed for that task, and apparently, they succeeded.

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15. gippgig on October 7, 2010 2:38 PM writes...

This story is only about the hardware biohacker, but what about the software biohacker? Nowadays, all you need is a computer, internet connection, and intelligence - there's already more data out there than people can analyze. I was a theory-oriented biohacker back in the 1980s & 1990s; for a brief period in 1982 I had what was probably the world's largest nucleotide sequence collection. #9 - I generally went to a university library once a week to read the journals & photocopy articles. Are there any others out there?
One way to reduce the danger of garage (& regular) biotech is biological containment - crippled organisms that can't survive outside the lab. They should be made readily available if they aren't already (every biotech lab should get some & toss them in the back of the freezer so they'll have them if they ever need them & won't be tempted to go ahead without them).
It should be fairly easy to dispose of biotech waste from a home lab - just soak in household bleach.
A good model for what amateurs could do is AMSAT. This is a group that has been building communication satellites for ham radio operators for decades. They've shown that amateurs can build spacecraft for 1/30 the cost of an equivalent commercial satellite and this factor of 30 cost reduction should apply to just about any technical project.
There is no question that genetic engineering can produce dangerous things but nature has been doing it for billions of years. At one point nature transferred a plasmid coding for a protease to a bacterium that caused an upset stomach. The result was bubonic plague, the "black death" that wiped out a significant fraction of the human population in the middle ages.
Biohacking isn't new. Scientific American published an article on home cloning in the Amateur Scientist column back in June 1994.
Considering the total incompetence of terrorists bioterrorism is unlikely to be a significant threat. The real risk is from accidents.

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16. Paul on October 7, 2010 2:59 PM writes...

So, how close are they to making a strain of yeast that can synthesis (say) morphine? Organized criminal biohacking might go farther than mere amateurs.

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17. Matt on October 7, 2010 3:01 PM writes...

This UTexas waste manual indicates that general microbiological waste can be disposed of in regular trash after treatment with a bleach solution. Are there any nasties that survive soaking in household sodium hypochlorite solution? I admit to far less knowledge of biology than chemistry, but a perusal of Google Scholar indicates that even biofilms and anthrax spores can't survive strong bleach solutions. You shouldn't even need new waste services to deal with the byproducts of garage biotech.

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18. DD on October 7, 2010 3:09 PM writes...

Hap, no need to dump untreated media! Instead, add bleach, let sit for 15-30 minutes or so, neutralize (if you like), then dump down the drain.

Paul, it's already been done:

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19. Anonymous on October 7, 2010 4:35 PM writes...

they should ban computer sales next, cause, you know, I don't want some hacker doing his dirty work next door to me

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20. Paul on October 7, 2010 4:35 PM writes...

DD: I knew about that. That was only a partial synthesis, since they had to start from an intermediate obtained from opium poppies. It's my understanding that the full biosynthetic pathway has not yet been characterized.

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21. chemikanji on October 7, 2010 7:23 PM writes...

Paul: My lab is one of several trying to reconstitute morphine biosynthesis. Full scale government projects are underway, but are looking at 10 years to completion. It's simply not in the realm of the backyard biohacker.

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22. Aspirin on October 7, 2010 9:52 PM writes...

Neighbor accidentally engineers horrible flesh-eating bacteria in his garage. Another reason to move to Canada.

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23. Stephen on October 7, 2010 10:13 PM writes...

@20: Pardon my ignorance, but why try to reconstitute morphine biosynthesis when it is so readily available from poppies?

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24. Curt F. on October 7, 2010 10:44 PM writes...

Pardon my ignorance, but why try to reconstitute morphine biosynthesis when it is so readily available from poppies?

This is just speculation on my part:

Maybe it is because yeast is easier to smuggle than heroin?

Maybe it is because poppies are hard to grow commercially outside of a few regions of the globe?

Maybe it is because people want to modify the pathway to create various morphine analogs?

I don't know, but it is an interesting question.

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25. chemikanji on October 7, 2010 10:53 PM writes...

1) You can't just grow opium poppies on a farm in the middle of Kansas. Have fun trying to source your reagents from Afghanistan.
You can grow yeast anywhere, in an erlenmyer, and get pharma-grade QC and throughput.

2) Reconstituting pathways gives you the ability to modify them. The whole thing is about a dozen steps. Want codeine instead of morphine? Leave out that last enzyme. The same pathway is present in dozens of other species, too. Clone an opium poppy gene into a related plant, and you just got access to hundreds of new highly active intermediates and products.

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26. PTM on October 8, 2010 1:56 AM writes...

The chances of someone accidentally producing a human pathogen are completely negligible. There are billions of billions of billions of billions of billions of billions... of bacteria and viruses in the environment (100 000 000 000 000 bacteria live on and in one human being alone), and they all constantly mutate, compared to that astronomical amount of mutations the number of mutations we humans can do by accident is completely insignificant and negligible. This is why worrying about someone accidentally producing a dangerous pathogen is completely unwarranted.

Now deliberate work with pathogens is a different issue but for that one would require much more extensive lab equipment or else he would become the first victim. And besides anyone interested in terror could do much more harm much more reliably with guns or poisons.

The only real hazard I can see is from careless handling of toxic chemicals like ethidium bromide or acrylamide but that would primarily harm the person working with them.

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27. milkshake on October 8, 2010 7:21 AM writes...

what is the chance that someone develops a long-lived infectious and aerosol-transmissible version of human sperm in his garage lab? The entire residential neighborhoods could get knocked up.

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28. anon, obviously on October 8, 2010 7:12 PM writes...

@ 24 & 25: You can indeed grow P. somniferum in Kansas, as well as in any of the 48 contiguous states and Hawaii. It is a mere propaganda point of the DEA that P. somniferum can only be grown under special conditions and certain climates. In fact it grows quite well here in New England and self-seeds prolifically from seeds bought at the grocery store, as well as from seeds bought from ordinary garden catalogs selling them as ornamentals.

I fancy the Danebrog variety, very colorful mixed with blue flaxflowers and lupines.

On topic, it is mind-boggling to me as a biologist that folks are quite concerned with garage sequencers but not at all about antibiotic resistance, lack of vaccine distribution or the spread of XDR infections from nursing homes/hospitals/CAFOs to the general public. Those things are all absolutely proven to kill people, known hazards and frighteningly common (think how often partially-vaccinated children visit Great-grandma, then go to daycare), yet nobody gets upset about that stuff.

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29. Anonymous on October 10, 2010 9:27 PM writes...

How about a garage band that dabbles in cool stuff. Yaaa reminniscent of the Ramones!!! By the way don't forget to pay your respects to the late Joey Ramone at the Hillside cemetary in Lyndhurst NJ. He's there....

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30. tyrosine on October 11, 2010 3:16 PM writes...

Dr. John Warner stated that licensing of the chemistry profession is a certainty in the near future (Keynote speaker on Oct 1st, 2010, 3rd International Symposium on Green Processing in the Pharmaceutical & Fine Chemical Industries).

Perhaps this will bring about something similar for biologists. BTW, John Warner, a former UMass professor, made this statement citing his work with the State of California as a green chemistry expert.

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31. Otis on October 12, 2010 2:07 AM writes...

I have more biology experience than chemistry, and I concur with Matt from UT. Additionally, if you work in old Welch at UT or the Old Pharma building at UT then you're basically working in a garage.

It's not like the TV show's where the labs have mood lighting. We had the occasional bat get in from the roof when I worked in the old pharmaceutical building at UT. Also, the dust made it rough with the cell cultures.

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32. Jeff Bouley - ddn on October 13, 2010 10:32 AM writes...

I think that milkshake might have uncovered the plot of the next Seth Rogen/Katherine Heigl film: "Knocked Up 2: Doing it in the Garage"

In all seriousness, though (and I was somewhat flip about the risks of the "zombie apocalypse" when I linked here from my own blog post Oct. 7), I think my biggest concern is that even dealing with paint and household chemicals, people are so lax about disposal, and I'm not sure garage biotech people fill me with much confidence either for safe handling and removal of materials overall.

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33. Fernando Ortiz on October 21, 2010 4:36 PM writes...

Hi there, (message from:

Please help... I need to monitor a home made, 55 gln aerobic reactor with whole raw potato slurry, mineral complements and culture media... the idea is a SCP process to obtain nucleotide, amino and else nutrients.

Will a regular educational fluorometer, turbidimeter or colorimeter with the right software do the work? Could you please suggest a software name and a low price optical device for this matter, including nucleotide, amino and else nutrients measuring?

Thanks in advance, my best regards,

Optical device for PH, and pO2 monitoring

Fernando Ortiz Serrano
Casa: (593) 42 391 213 Celular: (593) 92 363 544 skype:ecuafosy
Guayaquil- Ecuador

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34. Kotyto on October 24, 2010 2:39 PM writes...

I would toss most of you prudence, caution, conservatism.... Whatever will happen, will happen. Simply because the opportunity is there. No amount of regulation can save us from our own stupidity, furthermore, most unsavory characters have a somewhat blatant disregard for regulation :-)

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