D.I.Y. Biology, on the Wings of the Mockingjay

With the growing availability of tools to modify organisms, a creature like the bird imagined in the “Hunger Games” series is not an impossible fantasy.

Comments: 32

  1. God forbid. Read Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

  2. The idea that "anyone" can produce a genetically modified organism of the kind described is totally without merit, and the fact that the NYT would publish such an article, which by the way fails to describe any of the methods, or difficulties in such a project, is evidence of the lack of science education today.

  3. Furthermore, When Dr. Slonczewski mentioned "Anybody" I'm sure she meant a highly trained scientist. Not DIY experimenters. Frankly, there even more ethical hurdles to DIY animal gmos. DIY's should stick to microbes and plants.

  4. I'd like to think that Kevin is correct, but I think he underestimates the potential residing in the general population. The wide-spread dispersal of any technology leads to the probability that "anyone" might become expert in that art by dint of native intelligence, luck or perseverance.

    Reading and writing, as a technologies once sole provinces of elites, spring immediately to mind as examples.

  5. Kevin, neither the author nor the quoted microbiologist said what you've accused them of saying.

    Rather, they said that "The tools needed to modify organisms are already widely dispersed in industry and beyond" (true) and that "Do-it-yourself biology is growing" (true) and that one very "provocative" thinker, Freeman Dyson, thinks this could eventually lead to "the tools of biotechnology spreading to everyone" (true, Dyson does think that, but as the article carefully points out, Dyson's views are "provocative," i.e., not mainstream).

    We have a right to expect high standards from The Times. But, when criticizing The Times, we should be careful to comment on what it has actually written!

  6. The idea of popular gene modification is reminiscent of the wacky fears spawned by comic book writers and Hollywood movie makers that exposure to radiation would create monsters like the Hulk, Spiderman and Godzilla.

  7. Yes indeedy! And we all have flying cars in our garages, don't we? With a personal flying belt inside in the hall closet. All powered by tiny little fusion generators. (cut to Mortimer Snerd: "yup-yup-yup-yup!")

  8. An inventor / engineer in California recently designed and then built a functioning automobile / airplane. It runs on the same fuel that cars do (she fills up the gas tank at a normal gas station) and she parks it in her home's garage. I know this sounds crazy. But it's true.

  9. I could produce a genetically modified organism like the jabberjay. I'd need a dedicated lab space, an army of top-notch scientists and technicians, millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars for supplies, and decades of intense effort. (And maybe some more money...)

    The effort would succeed -if, and only if- I was very, very lucky.

    Fortunately, I am smart enough not to try.

    RE: jabberjays crossing with mockingbirds - I assumed (when I read the story) that the scientists at the Capitol used some of the mockingbird genome in the construction of the jabberjay - so the engineered organism was technically a jay-mockingbird hybrid. The Capitol scientists, with typical scientific hubris (see my comments above for an example), assumed the jabberjay would not reproduce in the wild because they did some manipulation that prevented it from mating and producing offspring with other jays. They forgot the mockingbird part of the jabberjay genetic make-up, and never checked to see if jabberjays and mockingbirds could interbreed.

  10. Obviously Kevin of IA and Jesse of Providence RI failed, or at least did extremely poorly in high school biology. I can do it at home with small rodents right now. Fast breeding rate, easy care, and large litters make them ideal experimental subjects. The point to remember is that those experimenters are going to have thousands of failures to every semi-success. Most of those failures won't live, and those that do will probably be monsters. Anyone for a six-limbed, flying gerbil?

  11. And don't forget that some people are narcissistically ignorant of the possible. "I cannot imagine it (or do it), so it cannot be done."

  12. We can only hope that (future) GM animals will do what ought to be done: turn on their makers and destroy them.

  13. Before you dismiss DIY gene engineering as totally unrealistic, take a look at igem.org. Their annual competitions for the best new synthetic genes include categories for college undergraduates and high school students. Also visit partsregistry.org, "a continuously growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems".

  14. iGEM is certainly a formidable force in synthetic biology. But it's also a good example of the challenges that DIY Biology faces. The iGEM teams toil in well-equipped laboratories at the nation's best universities, often under the tutelage of a several graduate students and at least one professor mentor. Despite that--with all respect to the hard work that goes into the iGEM projects--most of them don't work, and the teams don't succeed in accomplishing their goals. Genetic engineering requires tremendous resources and guidance; expecting that someone unassisted by and unaffiliated with high-level researchers could do serious science in their basement, that's a stretch to imagine, especially when the iGEM teams, with all the resources they need, struggle valiantly but often in vain to produce meaningful science.

  15. actually, kids are learning how to extract DNA from onions and so forth while they're in 5th or 6th grade so it's not that far fetched. Indeed, I have priced machines which allow pores to be made in zygotes to facilitate the introduction of pieces of DNA to form bioluminescent lab animals. I'm not a molecular biologist but the technology is getting to be simple and the costs are not great.

    I think we expect six-eyed alligators in the sewers in the future or alligators with monitor lizard DNA. There's even a comic about a kid that's a non-conformist who would do this sort of thing and he's emulated by a segment of the society. It's a molecule that can be transferred easily between one or organism and another and if the animal has a large and easily handled egg, think sea urchin, then some kid with a little money is going to try it.

    I don't think it's right to experiment this way, bioluminescent organisms aside, but it will become easy to do. I wouldn't look on Ebay but there's almost no way to stop this. Most of the chimeras formed this way will not reproduce on their own, and I mean 99.9999999%.

    One could argue that Monsanto's experiments are already the chimera out-of-the-bottle. People just don't consider plants that much but a mockingjay is equal to a plant that can't be killed by conventional herbicides and comes back to bite in unexpected ways.

  16. It's certainly possible to do some cool things with Biology these days. But these activities aren't weighty scientific endeavors. They're like kit activities, were you put together a kit, but all the pieces have already been made and supplied with instructions of how to do it. If we make an analogy and say that making a genetically engineered organism is like assembling a car, extracting onion DNA is like polishing that car. Putting DNA into a zygote to make glowing animals is like putting gas in that car--it's light-years away from actually building the car. My point is that DIY biologists can easily replicate some simple experiments that scientists have been able to do in the lab for decades--just like changing the oil on your car. But ask a DIY biologist to do something new that other scientists haven't already done ("make me a cure for HIV in your basement!") and they won't have much success.

  17. Which students are learning this, and where?

  18. I haven't said they would plan and execute a creation, but an electroporator cost one hundred dollars as surplus and since I'm interested I won't say where - you'll just have to look for it yourself. Yes, it's low through-put and cumbersome, but $100 is within reach of many people. Sea urchins have millions of eggs and extracting eggs, and modifications are done by lab techs all the time, not Ph.Ds. The same with Mass Spectrometers when they used to require an advanced to degree to run one a couple of decades ago while now they're run by people with high school diplomas.

    The kids experimenting with this will make something they weren't out to make, they'll make something random. But try and stop them! I don't think it's possible.

    For those who want proof that kids are learning how to do this, you just have use the internet. Here's a link which I have not checked-out, but ranked high in the search, http://www.all-science-fair-projects.com/category103.html .

    Kids will see this and think "I can do this". Some will try on the their dog and get into trouble, but some will research it before trying it on the slugs in the garden, or a roach in the basement. It's how things like this happen. Consider the people found with a quantity of radium or thorium a few decades ago. They wanted to make their own bomb. The internet makes really good information easily available.

  19. This process has already been undertaken some years ago... and has had questionable success.

    One clever creator took the DNA of common rats, rattlesnakes, and jackals… and created a species that they’ve dubbed “Hackensteins”. They can be found in government at the Federal, state, and local levels. They formerly were called public servants.

    Another innovator combined the DNA of blindworms, tree-sloths, and bovines. They’ve yet to be given a name… but they can be found at my local supermarket and mall.

    And they’re reproducing.

    I’ve tried to think of an appropriate name for them… but then, since I didn’t create them, then perhaps it’s not my place. Maybe someone more clever than I can give them an appropriate moniker.

  20. After seeing stuffed dodo birds in museums, I thought those would be the first extinct species cloned. They were self-limiting in nature, so what could go wrong.
    I think if someone approached the richest person in Mauritius, they would gladly underwrite the project out of patriotism.
    In a similar way, the newly recognized dwarf mammoth of Crete.
    Combining rich people with whimsical science is the way to sidestep public funding debates.

  21. Dodos weren't used to predators so they could be approached easily, they weren't self-limiting - they were easy prey. The same with Great Auks, numerous others, but reproducing a species is much harder than putting in a gene then getting it expressed.

    Putting in a single gene at a time, then getting a few off-spring to incorporate the gene and express it, so it can be detected, then continuing that line will be difficult but it isn't expensive to do anymore. Just putting genes isn't all that difficult to do but each step is another mountain to move.

    You can buy genes off the shelf right now and they don't cost that much - like genes for bioluminescence. Designer pets will most likely be a fad and unlike a clone they are a new item (I won't say species since that implies reproduction). People have cloned pets for a long time.

    But some rich person would probably like to have a pygmy mammoth (which they will treat like the pot-bellied pig or miniature horse after a few weeks) so you may see one someday! I think mockingbirds calling at three in the morning is bad enough but this isn't going to be all that difficult to do.

    Or the Tea Party might try to resurrect some old movie star and this time make him even more pliable than he once was, and probably even less thoughtful, if that's possible. Through cloning and gene modification of course. I'm sure somebody has copies of somatic cells from that guy! It'll be like the third "Aliens" movie, a really bad remake.

  22. Whimsical or mad? You be the judge!

  23. Perhaps we will get a Tea Party version of "The Boys From Brazil".

  24. "Eventually, he wrote, the mixing of genes by humans will initiate a new stage in evolution."

    This is no more evolution than the breeding of dogs or roses with characteristics which we like, though with dogs, some breeds have significant health problems as a result. This seems more like the opening of Pandora's Box than a boon to human beings or other species. H.G. Wells wrote about a similar possible dystopia in The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1896.

  25. I'm a career microbiologist; I genetically engineer bacteria for a living. Let me say this: it is extremely hard, like 6 years of PhD learning and 4 years of post-PhD fellowship hard, and still it usually doesn't work. DIY genetic engineering is like DIY heart surgery. Just because you can get your hands on the tools (for surgery, all you need is a knife and some quaaludes for the patient) doesn't mean you're capable of performing heart surgery. Phil has great faith in the general population to teach themselves things, and I appreciate that optimism and faith. But a hard-hitting DIY scientist with no formal training is as difficult to imagine as a DIY brain surgeon, or a DIY space shuttle pilot.

  26. And a patent office clerk couldn't possible have a grasp of physics.......

  27. I think the fear with D.I.Y. biology is not that the layperson has some diabolical scheme to create a frankenstein like organism, but that the layperson will do it by accident. The scientific illiteracy in this country is staggering, which means only the most abstract D.I.Y. biology could ever create any kind of functioning result.

    Cloning one gene into another can be trivial. So trivial in fact that bacteria are the organisms that first taught us how to to do it. And we use those bacterial proteins to mediate most cloning events. I would think twice before images of runaway avian chimeras dance through your head. If nature doesn't readily produce it, it will be difficult for a human to recreate it by using the recombinatorial tools developed by nature itself.

  28. Have you seen the latest chimera that nature produced? From Nature "19 April 2012 Corrected: 20 April 2012

    In the hostile environment of a bubbling volcanic hot spring, a team of researchers at Portland State University in Oregon has discovered a new viral genome that seems to be the product of recombination between a DNA virus and an RNA virus — a natural chimaera not seen before. Their findings appeared on 19 April in the journal Biology Direct."

    If this gets verified by others then all those molecular biology texts will be out of date, just like the beautiful one I had that said "One gene, one protein" and couldn't explain horizontal transfer and acquired resistance to antibiotics.

    Nature, not the journal, produces some really incredible things...

  29. I applaud those who suspect university-based studies are just a paper chase. Maybe their talents should be used to cure a disease or just be inspired by the eloquence of Vernon Ehlers on yesterday's ScienceFriday on NPR? Scientists should contribute thier talents in all areas.

    Paul Anziano

  30. I am a genetic engineer by profession (start-up company, not Monsanto-type stuff), and I agree with Taylor Dwight that while DIY Bio movements allow laypeople to do interesting kit-type biology experiments, it takes vastly more resources, knowledge, effort and skill (not everyone has the hands to be a laboratory scientist) to make meaningful advances in biology and specifically genetic engineering. Unless you're very lucky, which happens occasionally, but it's definitely the exception. It's easier to modify organisms through hybridization and husbandry, but then you don't know what specific changes have happened to create the new organisms, so there's a lack of fundamental understanding of your new bugs/birds/animals/plants/whatever. You don't need to have a PhD to do science, but you do need proper infrastructure and knowledge.

    The comments about iGEM are interesting, and here also, I agree with Taylor Dwight; even if you're part of a university competition and have smart people and a parts registry, you are far from guaranteed success.

  31. I really enjoyed this article.

    It got me thinking....What's the right balance of public (government funded and regulated) versus private (DIY, private for-profit companies that may eschew regulation) science?

    Are we close to the first DIY human cloning via some billionaire (which by the way would be perfectly legal in the U.S)?

    I address these issues and more in a recent post on my lab's blog that I think you'll find interesting.


    Paul Knoepfler
    Associate Professor
    UC Davis School of Medicine

  32. Monsanto, I believe, once said that their GMO would never drift or combine with non-GMO plants. Ooops. What's more frightening is the fool who knows nothing releasing a novel/useful gene into the wild. Perhaps 99.99999% fails...but how many bacteria are there in each square foot of soil? How do those bacteria interact with their environment? A gene for bioluminesence may seem innocuous, but what happens after 100 or 1000 generations of evolution done 1000 different ways? You only need .000001% perhaps to create a disaster of epic proportions.