COLUMN: Do-it-yourself biology introduces experimentation — but why?
A recent story in the New York Times discussed the issue of do-it-yourself biology. That is, amateur scientists doing biological experiments outside the confines of a laboratory, where the environment is understandably more controlled and thus safer.
These do-it-yourselfers have the potentiality, according to the article, to jumpstart the next phase of evolution, leading to the creation of new, science-fiction worthy species. They also have the potential to kill us all, according to an earlier article.
Some advocates for amateur biology said the do-it-yourselfers' ethics were being understated; they would never do such a thing. However, accidents do happen. Without being within the confines of a secured lab, any misstep — let’s a say a life-threatening virus — could be let loose on the public.
This fear prompted a government advisory board in December to advise scientific journals against publishing the exact details of their studies, which had yielded a “highly transmissible form of a deadly flu virus,” according to the article.
The intentions behind not releasing the information were obvious — they didn’t want amateur scientists to replicate the find and release a deadly pandemic. But was the advisory board's fears warranted?
I’d have to say yes and no.
When dealing with anything potentially deadly, caution is always an important measure to take. Whether playing with a BB gun or a mutated flu virus, people always should be careful so that someone’s eye doesn’t get shot out or so we don’t end up in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a bubonic plague-like illness. But are these fears even justified?
It would seem so. The specific flu virus the advisory board tried to keep under wraps was A(H5N1), more commonly known as bird flu. Since 1997, when the virus was first detected, it has killed more than 50 percent of the 600 it has infected. Imagine those numbers on a larger scale. If the virus had spread at the rate it is capable of spreading and everyone was exposed to it (which is nearing 7 billion), more than half the population on Earth would be dead.
Thus, while a little more than 300 people may seem slightly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, in that small number, there’s always the potential to expand and grow — and conceivably take many more lives.
That’s what the advisory board and professional scientists are worried about. They know they’re not perfect, but it seems like less of a risk to conduct experiments — especially those that mutate a virus into an unknown monster — in safe, controlled environments.
That only makes sense, yet do-it-yourselfers claim everyone’s fears aren’t justified. After all, they aren’t professionals. In theory, their scientific prowess isn’t enough to replicate the work of the professionals. On top of that, a do-it-yourself scientist isn’t the same as a mad scientist. Chances are they aren’t scheming for world destruction; they are just interested in science and the pursuit of knowledge. Both are noble goals.
So is the fear justified? Yes. Are we being too cautious? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No.
While I’ve come to those conclusions, it brings up a new question. Why mutate biology in the first place?
Sure, we have the ability. As aforementioned, some think that with new technological advances, our experimentation will kick-start the next phase in evolution. Yet, why should we? How would that hinder or help society? I’ve heard my whole life, “Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.” I think scientists should take that approach when it comes to playing with the fabric of DNA.
I don’t know anyone who wasn’t required to read “Frankenstein” sometime during his or her high school career, so it shouldn’t be hard to see how it relates. Victor Frankenstein played God. He took liberties he shouldn’t have. He brought life to the dead, and it ultimately destroyed his life, not to mention the others around him. That’s what scientists are doing now when they mess with biology and create new species.
So heed that warning. Professional scientists say amateurs have the potential to unwind the delicate ecologies of Earth. Yet so do they. What gives them that right? No one should be able to take those liberties.
Thus, while it will be a long time until the biotechnological tools exist that could expedite the process of evolution, it’s still something to be wary of, and truthfully, it’s something to stay very far away from. If people can’t stay away, though, it would seem they should at least be cautious. This is why, in limiting the knowledge do-it-yourself biologists have access to, scientists are doing the “right” thing, though it may admittedly be the “paranoid” thing.
Personally, I would rather be overly cautious than not cautious enough and let a potential pandemic slip through my fingers. Maybe that’s just because I don’t look very cute in a surgical mask, though.
Paighten Harkins is a journalism sophomore.