Getting Started on Garage Biotechnology

In the 70s, a handful of knowledgeable computer hobbyists gathered in the Homebrew Computer Club. A mere three decades later, hundreds of thousands of far more empowered individuals around the world collaborate on the production of hardware and software designs to the betterment of all. They are a cultural force and infrastructure for change unto themselves. What better future to look forward to that one in which many hands are joined in ever more beneficial trade and progress?

Today, the first biotechnology hobbyists are working their way through the same basics. As costs fall, the priesthood will dissolve and spread at the edges. Progress will accelerate - the long tail in any area of human endeavor has many hands and eyes, and a significant amount of funding power. More to the point, problems that traditional funds and organizations wouldn't touch will be open to new, less intensive, smarter approaches. This has all come to pass in the software world. It will also come to pass in biotechnology - which is simply a different form of programming in a wetter, much more complex operating system.

On a related topic, this piece caught my eye the other day:

A plan for a global database of all human gene mutations has been announced in Australia. The Human Variome Project could allow doctors to rapidly diagnose patients with rare genetic conditions and could ultimately lead to new treatments for diseases.

About 100,000 human gene mutations have been discovered, but this total represents only about 5% of the predicted total number of mutations.

I thought this interesting in light of recent research on the random nature of genetic mutations that accumulate with age. It won't be long now before complete genetic assays are a low-cost commercial product, something your doctor would order along with a blood test. What could one do for age-related genetic damage armed with the future technologies of genetic manipulation and replacement alongside a complete guide to the consequences of mutations?

There is no practical way to complete a list of mutations - not to mention epimutations and other important errors in cellular biochemistry - and their meaning in combination given today's technology. There was no practical way to complete the human genome project when it launched either - but, thankfully, we live in an age of breakneck technological progress. It is, I think, important that scientists embark upon these sorts of projects early rather than late: the early work is rendered quaint soon enough, but it is essential in informing and driving necessary advances in infrastructure technologies.

Soon enough, thousands, and then tens of thousands of biotech hackers will be joining in to assist efforts just like this one. Then it will all become most interesting - and we will all benefit greatly, just as we have from the blossoming of software development as a culture and infrastructure.

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