More Thoughts on Open Source / Garage Biotechnology

A post from Frank at Anti-Aging Science & Medicine (commenting on some nice simulational biotech work at HHMI) made me think again about just how open source development methologies and cultures will shape the future of biotechnology.

What are the implications for garage biotechnology hacking? If bioinformatics was the sole technique, it would seem that anyone could have done this research in their garage with computer access to the genomics database and some know-how. My point is not to downplay the scientist's work but to present the possibilities for the amateur scientist in the light of "open source biotechnology".

Know-how is expensive, of course, but not as expensive as you might think. If the cost of entry is low (a low cost, high power computer, some general smarts, an investment of time) then someone with 1/10 of a high-level professional biotech know-how can produce useful results at 1/10 of the rate and effectiveness of the professionals. If they mess up, then they mess up - in simulation rather than with real genes in real organisms. Experimentation and diversity will be the order of the day when the only cost is the time of dedicated citizen scientists and the only downside is that some of that time will be wasted. Useful progress may be slow for each individual, but many, many people will be qualified to participate.

As I pointed out previously, this breaking down of the priesthood through lowered barriers to entry is how open source development has greatly advanced software development. It will do the same for biotechnology - hard problems requiring large investments in knowledge and resources will still typically be solved by scientific professionals working in traditional organizations, but they won't waste their time working on the easier issues. The much larger number of citizen scientists will be rapidly organizing to accomplish everything they are capable of and freely sharing the results of their work.

One benefit that truly stands out in this future is that research projects ignored by mainstream funding organizations stand a strong chance of making headway. One such presently ignored project is serious anti-aging research, work to find ways to prevent and reverse age-related damage - and soon. As biotech advances and computers become more capable, we activists are going to move from talking, educating and raising money to all that plus performing scientific research using the tools of open source biotechnology.

This is still some years ahead, however - the first generation tools, standards and platforms are still under evolving and under construction. See for example, to pick two quick, illustrative organizations at random, BIOS and the Open Bioinformatics Foundation. This process will accelerate the further it goes, and a large number of smart people are working on it. It's a bright future if the history of software development to date is anything to go by.

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