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The Economist Calls For "Open Source" Biology

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the preparing-for-plague-2.0 dept.

Biotech 80

Socguy writes "With the announcement earlier this week that a team of researchers has created the first artificial life, The Economist has been pondering the implications of what this brave new frontier means when the power to build living organisms filters through to anyone with a laptop. Traditional methods of restricting and regulating dangerous technology have more or less worked so far, but The Economist thinks that this time may be different. They are calling for an open system where the 'good guys' can see and counter any dangerous organisms that are released, accidentally or otherwise."

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80 comments

there are rat-faced jews (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32305734)

on this website

open source economics? (2, Funny)

yoyoq (1056216) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305766)

great idea, how about open source economics too.

Re:open source economics? (3, Insightful)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305882)

the international banking cartel, of which our Federal Reserve is a local branch office, will never allow it. That's why we can't pass a bill to audit the Fed.

Re:open source economics? (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306094)

So is Bernanke merely a figurehead, or is the cabal-that-rules-the-world fond of academic descendants of middle-class (vaguely) Ukrainian Jews?

Re:open source economics? (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306794)

bah, other mega-corporations with lawmakers in their pockets also rule the world, and as for religions of executives in the banking cartel in western civilization, there are muslims, christians, atheists as well as jewish people.

Re:open source economics? (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307048)

If it allows the largely anonymous son of a pharmacist to rise to the most powerful position in the world, it isn't much of a cartel.

Re:open source economics? (1)

Hope Thelps (322083) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307400)

If it allows the largely anonymous son of a pharmacist to rise to the most powerful position in the world, it isn't much of a cartel.

Why not? I can't see the connection.

Re:open source economics? (2, Interesting)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307470)

Because the whole idea of a cartel is control. 6 or 8 years ago, Bernanke didn't have any power, now he is probably the most powerful banker on the planet. Handing power over to some guy isn't a great way to maintain control.

Re:open source economics? (1)

Hope Thelps (322083) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307886)

Because the whole idea of a cartel is control. 6 or 8 years ago, Bernanke didn't have any power, now he is probably the most powerful banker on the planet. Handing power over to some guy isn't a great way to maintain control.

Typically a cartel is about profit (though I'm not sure that universally has to be true). There's no reason a cartel can't be as meritocratic (or autocratic etc.) as any other form of organisation. If you can imagine other forms of profit-driven (or if you really feel it has to be then control-driven) enterprise that would decide that "some guy" is competent enough to help them achieve their aims then the same goes for a cartel. I think it's pretty clear that ignoring whether someone is the son of a pharmacist (so?) in making appointments can be a winning, profitable, strategy. So why would a cartel be failing if it adopted such a strategy?

Re:open source economics? (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#32313784)

vHanding power over to some guy isn't a great way to maintain control.

They know where he lives.

Re:open source economics? (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 4 years ago | (#32331264)

his is not the most powerful position in the world, he is manager of a local branch office

Re:open source economics? (1)

Hurricane78 (562437) | more than 4 years ago | (#32318422)

Muhahahaaa! That’s the beautiful thing with my system: There is no need for a bill. There is no “allowing”. There is no choice. And there is no going back.
It spreads (the goodness) like a virus. A virus that can not be stopped.

Methinks the Economist doth protest too much.... (5, Insightful)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305796)

And makes too much out of 'synthetic biology'. For every nasty, dangerous issue that purely synthetic biology is faced with, the same issues occur with our current technology. Want to weaponize an E. coli - you could do that with current recombinant techniques. Creating the sequence de novo won't necessarily make the problem more dangerous - or even easier.

TFA worries about some time in the future when some psychotic teenager with a laptop and a DNA synthesizer can dream up some evil little critter and theorizes that 'open sourcing' of all DNA sequences would make dealing with this scenario easier. I don't see that. Even if Kim Jun Il's minions manage to do create a Micheal Crichton class bug having the 'code' would not make stabilizing the problem a whole lot easier. Especially if you could grow the bug and then sequence the thing. (Sequencing is and likely will be much easier than synthesis).

Besides ol' Kim isn't likely to upload his code to the repository, is he?

Re:Methinks the Economist doth protest too much... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306084)

"Weaponize" E. coli? Were you planning to crap on all the produce in the supermarket? Bioweapons are typically airborne. Weaponizing anthrax isn't even a genetic engineering process.

Re:Methinks the Economist doth protest too much... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306376)

It doesn't matter if he does or doesn't. We can just capture a specimen and sequence it, and because we open-sourced everything else, we'll understand everything else well enough to work against it. TFA is pretty clear about that. Remember, in biology, RTFS == RTFB, and extracting the DNA and sequencing it currently costs about $10000 US for a human, which is a much larger genome than anyone working with a pathogenic strain would go after.

Re:Methinks the Economist doth protest too much... (1)

Reziac (43301) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306398)

Thst was my thought too. You don't see much malware code on Sourceforge, do you?? Why on earth would someone opensource their biological weapon??

While the concept is good from a research POV, it's hardly going to save us from a nutcase armed with a hacked copy of Recombinant DNA For Dummies.

Re:Methinks the Economist doth protest too much... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306804)

I'm waiting for someone to synthesize one of these buggers to turn sugar into THC-class compounds, or maybe opiates.

Hilarity will then ensue.

Re:Methinks the Economist doth protest too much... (2, Insightful)

RDW (41497) | more than 4 years ago | (#32308258)

'And makes too much out of 'synthetic biology'. For every nasty, dangerous issue that purely synthetic biology is faced with, the same issues occur with our current technology. Want to weaponize an E. coli - you could do that with current recombinant techniques. Creating the sequence de novo won't necessarily make the problem more dangerous - or even easier.'

Which is pretty much the most insightful comment in this thread. We've been manipulating bacteria and viruses for decades. Arbitrary genes encoding any nasty protein that takes your fancy can be inserted into a wide range of microorganisms using existing technology. The Venter group's work is a fantastic technical achievment, but does not increase the risk of a terrorist group or rogue state developing a biological weapon. Far easier for them to tweak an existing pathogen that billions of years of evolution have exquisitely adapted to infecting humans. Easier still (and much more plausible) to take an 'off the shelf' bug like Anthrax and weaponise it without the need for any genetic manipulation at all.

I'm also curious about how the writer of TFA thinks molecular biology research actually works. The sequences of any number of pathogens, down to the individual genes that make them virulent, are freely available on the net from sites like NCBI, making them rather easier to get hold of than The Economist's own paywalled 'premium content'. Pretty much everything else that has been sequenced is out there too, including the Venter group's synthetic mycoplasma genome, which can be found right here:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nuccore/296455217 [nih.gov]

In what way is this not already 'open source'?

Re:Methinks the Economist doth protest too much... (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 4 years ago | (#32313838)

I just read "Oryx and Crake", you insensitive pigoon!

Good vs. Evil (2, Insightful)

DaMattster (977781) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305806)

Open source, in of itself, is somewhat agnostic to these quintessentially biblical terms. Open source is neither good nor evil, it just exists in a neutral state and it is up to the mind of the user whether it will be used for beneficial purposes or harmful purposes. Early FUD spreaders tried to capitalize on the fact that something open source would be less secure because source code could be examined for flaws and exploited by those wishing to do harm. The counter argument goes that security weaknesses are inherrent because software is a human innovation and thus error-prone and source code availability can lead to faster patching of flawed code because more people are examining it. The same can be said for biology - there are always people that will try to engineer a harmful life form based on what is out there but the more knowledge there is in the public space, the faster the harm can be subverted.

Re:Good vs. Evil (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306880)

I say give the info to everyone.

Hasn't the fact that the "how to" is out, for improvised explosive devices, caused those to cease being effective?

Re:Good vs. Evil (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306966)

Open source, in of itself, is somewhat agnostic to these quintessentially biblical terms. Open source is neither good nor evil, it just exists in a neutral state and it is up to the mind of the user whether it will be used for beneficial purposes or harmful purposes.

I don't entirely buy that argument. Open source can encourage openness and transparency:

The old saying "love of money is the root of all evil" was never convincing. There have always been counter-examples. But replace "money" with "secrecy" and you get an interesting aphorism. Though secrecy does not always cause evil, one would be hard put to name any great evil that was not made worse by it.

-- M. N. Plano

Re:Good vs. Evil (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32310656)

Open source, in of itself, is somewhat agnostic to these quintessentially biblical terms. Open source is neither good nor evil

In a non-biblical sense, [retrologic.com] open source is decidedly non-evil. Non-rude, too.

Re:Good vs. Evil (1)

Chalex (71702) | more than 4 years ago | (#32312034)

"open source" (but you probably mean Free Software) is about making tools available. So a knife may be an apt analogy, a very useful tool that could be easily used for good or evil.

They are late (3, Funny)

Bugamn (1769722) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305808)

People have already installed Linux on badgers [strangehorizons.com] .

Re:They are late (1)

DaMattster (977781) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305830)

People have already installed Linux on badgers [strangehorizons.com] .

And badgers suddenly get the desire for freezing cold weather and doing strange belly movements!!

Maxim (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32305836)

If you criminalize biology, only criminals will become biologists?

Re:Maxim (1)

hedwards (940851) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306048)

You must not be from Texas. They've already done that to history and have made great swipes at doing it to biology as well.

It's Been Ongoing (2, Insightful)

b4upoo (166390) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305864)

For many years students with education in biology really could have let some horrors lose upon the world. Thankfully those who know how tend to be stable enough not to want to pursue such negative goals. After all, it takes a certain sum of stability and direction to reach upwards in the universities. These folks tend not to want to do harm.
              With synthetic life possible little has changed yet. Obviously this area can yield wonderful products to support and cure the ills of mankind.
              As to regulation of the technology that will never be available in any substantial way. The cost of watching all of the peoples' efforts to create new and different things has nothing to support it unless national economies are very, very robust. Worse yet, science that is not done here will be done elsewhere. A bright student in Ethiopia is as likely to let the genie out of the bottle than a goofy student in California. So just where would the money come from to watch the people all over the world and study their work deeply enough to predict real hazards?

Re: It's Been Ongoing (1)

e9th (652576) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306018)

Thankfully those who know how tend to be stable enough not to want to pursue such negative goals.

All it takes is one. [scienceblogs.com]

They've confused open source with public domain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32305894)

But so do most slashdorks too.

Re:They've confused open source with public domain (1)

pha7boy (1242512) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307116)

probably. but the point of the article in the economist is not open source vs public domain. It's whether a government should legislate the morality of synth-bio. And their point is that even if it should attempt to, any limitations on research should be minimal. The open source analogy is a little weak, but the idea is certainly commendable.

And so it begins (0)

Reality Master 101 (179095) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305936)

I've long thought that THIS is how intelligent life destroys itself. Basically, technology increases until the power to destroy all life can be used by a single insane individual.

Consider this. Let's say we have biology down to the level where a very intelligent person can design a lifeform using algorithmic programs. This person decides to destroy all human life, because they hate mankind (picture some enviro-nut). So he designs a pathogen that spreads through the air, and hides in the body. He wants it to spread everywhere, so he puts a 20 year fuse on it. After 20 years, the pathogen instantly kills the host. There's no way we would know about it, and there's nothing we could do about it.

Think no one would do that? Look at the Unibomber. If there's anyone who could've done it had he had access to the technology, it would have been that guy. I had a high-genius IQ. He was crazy. And he hated people.

Once we have this technology, all it takes is one nut to wipe out everyone. And honestly, I don't see how we can stop it. I hate to be pessimistic, but the inevitable march of technology means it will get cheaper and eventually fall in the hands of a nut.

The only things I can think of that can save us are full-body scanners that could catch anything trying to hide (fairly unlikely), or possibly real A.I. computers that are vastly more intelligent than human, and could instantly analyze diseases and find cures. Or perhaps a full-blown cure-all for mental illness. I don't know. But I'm fairly resigned to the fact that this is how the human race will end.

Re:And so it begins (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32305976)

more likely, a half-assed bug would get made and released before tech gets to the point that a nutball could competently design something to kill all humans. Instead, it will just put us back to the stone age in terms of population and civilization...then add, rinse, repeat.

Re:And so it begins (2, Informative)

selven (1556643) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306008)

I say spread out into space. If we only have a few thousand people per rock (think rings of Jupiter and Saturn), a terrorist can only wipe out a few thousand people. Spreading anything throughout the entire solar system is impractical - most of it will fall into the sun/a gas giant and the rest will break up on collision at over a kilometer per second. Delivery mechanisms like missiles can be detected and shot down with lasers (that takes care of thermonuclear war destroying everything as well).

Re:And so it begins (1)

Reality Master 101 (179095) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306274)

That's not going to work, unless the space colony gets no visitors in that 20 year fuse time. And even if they didn't, it's highly likely they will still be dependent on the Earth for some sort of critical supplies. A dead Earth probably means a dead colony.

Re:And so it begins (1)

lennier (44736) | more than 4 years ago | (#32318138)

I say spread out into space. If we only have a few thousand people per rock (think rings of Jupiter and Saturn), a terrorist can only wipe out a few thousand people. Spreading anything throughout the entire solar system is impractical - most of it will fall into the sun/a gas giant and the rest will break up on collision at over a kilometer per second. Delivery mechanisms like missiles can be detected and shot down with lasers (that takes care of thermonuclear war destroying everything as well).

But what about the much cheaper approach of biological weapons? Or even just trade embargoes?

Unless it's led by fanatic isolationists, human presence in space is always going to be part of a strongly linked web of travel and trade, and any social, biological or economic disaster is likely to spread to all of them just like wars and plagues have always spread throughout Earth empires.

Re:And so it begins (2, Insightful)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306042)

Let's say your nefarious person invents a machine that turns 1/2 of the earth into antimatter. What would we do then?

Yes, I'm saying your magic bug is magic, it doesn't just get to hide in the body for 20 years, it has to hide in the body for 20 years while avoiding the host immune system and competing for resources with other stuff living on the body, and then it has to be 100% effective.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Reality Master 101 (179095) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306244)

Except there are numerous examples of bugs that lie dormant in humans before triggering. That's why they are able to spread. It's an evolutionary success mechanism.

Re:And so it begins (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306310)

Name the one that is closest to staying non-virulent for 20 years and then being lethal.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Reality Master 101 (179095) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306342)

The obvious example is AIDS. But you're missing the point. The point isn't that that there exists a natural pathogen with these attributes, the point is whether it's possible to *engineer* a pathogen, and I don't see any reason that once we have genetic engineering down to a computer-like language that we can't do it.

Re:And so it begins (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307000)

The reason is that our bodies are incredibly hostile environments for pathogens.

You cite HIV as the 'obvious' example, yet one of the reasons it is so hard to deal with medically is that it mutates at a very high rate, so it would be very difficult to tie it together with a clockwork timebomb. Influenza has also proved difficult to treat, and it mutates so fast that ~80% of each generation is unable to infect the host that it was made in.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Derf the (610150) | more than 4 years ago | (#32310000)

... Influenza has also proved difficult to treat, and it mutates so fast that ~80% of each generation is unable to infect the host that it was made in.

Thankyou maxume

I had never figured out why the 1918 flu went away, why didn't it keep coming back year after year wiping out millions; so simple once you know!
It mutated itself out of existence, and then it was gone!
One more piece in my model of "Life the Universe & everything" slotted nicely into place.

Re:And so it begins (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#32310098)

I'm just reading "The Great Influenza" by John M. Barry. About 1/3 of the way through, a great read so far.

I went back and checked, to make sure I wasn't misleading you terribly, it turns out that the figure given in the book is that 99% of the viruses are not viable, not 80% (but 100,000 to 1 million individual viruses are released for each cell that is infected).

Another significant factor is that survivors usually have significant immunity, even to later, mutated strains.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Kilrah_il (1692978) | more than 4 years ago | (#32312044)

When dealing with infectious diseases in general, and viri especially, you need to make a distinction between infecting and pathogenic (http://www.answers.com/topic/infection - notice the word may in the first definition)).
When someone has Influenza, most, if not all, of the people around him will be infected, but few will develop an overt disease. For the virus this is a good thing, because people who are infected and are asymptomatic (or mildly symptomatic) pass on the virus better than someone who dies from the virus.
The Influenza virus mutates a lot, but it still very infectious - just not very pathogenic (disease causing). On top of that, very few of those infected died, with about a 3% mortality rate in the 1918 pandemic and less than 1% in the H1N1 pandemic ( http://general-medicine.jwatch.org/cgi/content/full/2009/521/1?q=etoc_jwgenmed [jwatch.org] ).

Re:And so it begins (1)

dissy (172727) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306282)

I've long thought that THIS is how intelligent life destroys itself. Basically, technology increases until the power to destroy all life can be used by a single insane individual.
*snip*
There's no way we would know about it, and there's nothing we could do about it.

indeed, this has been predicted as early as the 1950s, and some of our brighter thinkers have even come up with potential solutions 50 years ago.

Unfortunately I think we as a species, or even a collection of nations, will not do what is required to prevent damages and our extinction before it is too late.

The article below by Eric Drexler is specifically in regards to nanotechnology at a level of full remote control or programming ability. We are of course still far off from that, but two things we should agree on are 1) Engineered biology has similar risks to all of humanity, and 2) short of an extinction event, humanity WILL progress with technology.

http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/EOC/EOC_Chapter_12.html#section07of10 [e-drexler.com]

Re:And so it begins (1)

Surt (22457) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306516)

By the time we have the technology for that, we'll also have smart people thinking about how to detect that, and as much as you'd like your pathogen to be both airborne and to hide in the body and kill the host instantly, that is not an easy thing to accomplish. And smarter people, coordinated in teams, will have had years to build up defenses against such a pathogen.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Reality Master 101 (179095) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306842)

And smarter people, coordinated in teams, will have had years to build up defenses against such a pathogen.

That's like saying that once we have nuclear weapons, "smarter people, coordinated in teams, will have had years to build up defenses against such a" weapon. I don't see a defense against a nuclear bomb on the horizon. Our only defense (so far) is the fact that it takes government-level resources to make one (and not a single insane individual), and severe international restrictions. And I don't know about you, but I'm uncomfortable with having an insane individual in charge of North Korea right now. (But at least he doesn't have humanity-destroying power, only millions-of-people destroying power)

But I digress. It's always easier to destroy than to defend against destruction. And remember, the pathogen doomsday aggressor only has to be successful once. The pathogen doomsday defender has to be successful EVERY TIME, or else it's game over, and there's no second chance.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Surt (22457) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307336)

People have invested tons in nuclear defense. The US has made many billions of dollars worth of investments into nuclear defense, and to ensuring that a lone actor CANNOT in fact initiate a nuclear assault that could destroy all of humanity. Even an organized terrorist group with a large number of members has been unable to acquire even a single nuclear weapon.

We have a lot of very smart people working on how to prevent precisely the crazy bio engineer scenario, and I think there is reason to hope. We can track who buys the equipment, raw materials, etc. We can build detectors that detect new organisms. We can build stockpiles of antivirals, antimicrobials, etc (the difficulty of building something that will evade all of our arsenal of anti-life weapons is daunting). There are lots of ways to fight this, and there is a lot of money being poured into doing so.

Re:And so it begins (1)

kent_eh (543303) | more than 4 years ago | (#32307576)

The open source model [globecampus.ca] is already being applied to disease control
Scientists are able to see the benefits of working together without The Economist telling them that it's a good idea.

Re:And so it begins (1)

sillybilly (668960) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306538)

Artificial, or just naturally advancing superbug-biology is a serious threat to mankind and all other higher life forms, and could be one of the reasons that we don't see much intelligent life trying to talk to us from outer space. The unity of multicellular lifeforms - together we stand alone we fall - can provide to specialization necessary where braincells get developed, and in exchange for food, they provide the other cells with strategic decisions, such as where to run. And boy, is maintaining a large brain expensive, or what? 1/5th of power consumption in the body is by braincells, when mass is 1/20th only. In any case, you and I are multicellular organisms, and our constituent cells, together, through cooperation, specialization, and code of ethics, seem to be more successful than single celled ones, at survival. But the battle is not final yet, it may just be that lower, disorganized single celled organisms evolve that wipe out all the multicellular ones. Imagine the natural evolution of a virus that figures out a way to attack and destroy all eukaryote cells. Even if it's just a human specific disease. Especially with air travel these days, epidemics can spread very quickly and quarantining is difficult.

The answer to such issues is simple - "Biosphere 2", and similar, fully hermetically isolated biospheres, that have contact with the outside world only through an energy exchange, but no matter exchange. No disease can get in or out. A prime example is space stations. Going to space and successfully living as pockets of fully isolated life is an almost mandatory security issue for mankind and the rest of life, whether it's about a nuclear holocaust, or artificial or natural superbug/epidemic-disease evolution. When you achieve that, then you can say, there, single celled life forms can't build a space station, and put a jungle/biosphere in each of them. Then you can say that the survival guarantee of all life, including single and multicellular, could not have been possible without multicellular, that multicellular is worth it. The issue is divergent evolutions, where each pocket gives you different lifeforms given a few million years, but the danger of extra variety is preferable to almost certain doom.

Also creating pockets of life like this, and sending them off to distant worlds, such as Voyager 1 and 2, may buy enough time so that when AI smarter than us gets developed, and hunts us, they are limited by the speed of light, and can't catch us, or at least we get a century til they catch up with us, and can deliberate in the meantime on whether to program even smarter AI to defend, in those 100 years, at the risk of it hunting us too, but hopefully not. I don't know about you, but having to choose between a scenario where there are no humans left in the universe being destroyed by the AI created by humans, vs. one spacestation making it very far, and escaping by sheer luck, with people living for trillions of years from now, I would prefer the 2nd scenario. It may seem like aggression, aggressive conquering the Universe, by exploration, like Columbus going to the new world, why we can't just stay put where we are and live happily, but it can be done without aggression, especially if the universe is mostly empty of other life, unlike in the case of Columbus.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Metasquares (555685) | more than 4 years ago | (#32309546)

Imagine the natural evolution of a virus that figures out a way to attack and destroy all eukaryote cells. Even if it's just a human specific disease. Especially with air travel these days, epidemics can spread very quickly and quarantining is difficult.

There's a very high probability that virus would cease to exist in short order. Evolution favors viruses that preserve their hosts at least until they've had ample opportunity to spread. Even artificially developed viruses, not subject to the pressures of natural selection at the time of their creation, must still replicate and spread to cause epidemics and will be influenced by selective pressure in the environment.

However, consider the range of natural viruses and the incredible diversity of symptoms that they can cause. What worries me is not that some nutjob will create a virus which merely kills people - that sort of thing is swift, obvious, susceptible to existing protocols for controlling infectious diseases, and probably self-limiting - but that some nutjob will create a virus that alters people in subtle ways, body or mind (Vernor Vinge explores the theme of a mind-control virus in one of his sci-fi novels, Rainbows End (sic)). When a virus infects your cells it can write whatever code its creator wants into them. However difficult doing any high-level coding with this may initially be, "libraries" will be developed and such things will eventually be as easy as programming a computer is today. In fact, this would be awesome if not for the threat it represents (and if not for the fact that people are going to do some really immature if not outright harmful things with that ability - think a real life version of the Spore creature library). It would increase biodiversity tremendously from the outset, though common "library" sequences would likely be more or less homogeneous.

In any case, I do not think a designer virus would spell the end of all humanity, although it could cause widespread devastation. For any single pathogen there is a segment of the population which is, for some reason or another, by cause of some mutation or another, simply not susceptible to it. It would be extremely challenging for a virus writer to take the level of diversity among all humanity into account. We evolve too. What's more, designer viruses would also enable us to begin building our own defenses against such things if the researchers can keep up with the bio kiddiez.

As for advanced AI presenting a threat, I'm not as concerned about that one: I don't think an advanced AI would want to kill us any more than we want to kill off the chimps. If anything it would want to study our behavior - if it's that advanced we're no threat to it, and if it's not we still have a chance of stopping it.

None of this is in disagreement with your argument that establishing distant colonies would be beneficial for the robustness of humanity and of life, BTW. That's still the best long term solution.

Re:And so it begins (1)

Starcub (527362) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306608)

This person decides to destroy all human life, because they hate mankind (picture some enviro-nut).

Or, someone might decide to wipe out all human life AND sea life (picture some oil executive).

Restore (1)

MrKaos (858439) | more than 4 years ago | (#32305998)

Maybe we will ask ourselves, one day, why we didn't make a backup of nature.

Re:Restore (1)

Deltaspectre (796409) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306086)

That's why we're working on getting to Mars. We need a RAID solution!

(Insert RAID is not backup line here)

Re:Restore (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306166)

You mean RAIP (redudant array of inexpensive people)? I don't think that will go over too well with the general populace.

me: You want a RAIP?
her: Help!!! Police!!!!

Re:Restore (1)

ArsonSmith (13997) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306862)

Nah, we'll just have a bunch of penis shaped animals like with what happend in spore [spore.com]

novelty; singularity (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306136)

it's an interesting development to be sure. the economist is stretching however when it claims world shattering paradigm shifts in the hysterical voice of a chicken with it's head cut off.

bugs such as ebola already exist. the black death was the nuclear apocalypse of it's time, and had nothing to do with synthetic life. monsanto currently manipulates biology for profit in heinous ways, yet the screams of the world don't seem very loud on this one, nor do they call for 'open source crops' despite a variety of evidence that the product is harmful.

we still don't have a clue what most combinations of a,t,g, and c mean yet we'll go ahead and call this collection of lego blocks synthetic life? all the 'junk' dna we all carry that eclipses the stuff we 'think' works in the human body for regular processes? we haven't a clue, maybe it just adds bulk to the system so we aren't 2 inch tall humans.

when we can't explain the difference between worms and humans as identified functions we are not playing god, we are playing ridiculous.

Hidden (1)

fusellovirus (1386571) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306158)

Making something open sourced or putting most things in the public domain does not remove the ability to hide things. Anyone who wants to use this technology in private will be able to do so regardless of the communities openness. TFA seems to miss this fact.

The Good Guys Will Open Source (1)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306174)

But what's to say the Bad Guy will? I mean when Kim Jong-Il IV creates his monster bug to wipe out all humanity (excepting his descendants and a few breeding women), why would he Open Source it?

Hogwash... (1)

Orleron (835910) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306254)

Saying "when the power to build living organisms filters through to anyone with a laptop" is like saying, "when the power to install Linux filters through with anyone with a laptop". It will never happen because both systems require you to have some training and education that "anyone" will never be willing to obtain before installing.

Re:Hogwash... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32312552)

I agree, insert cd and click a few times is all the protection we need from these dastardly stupid terrorists, I mean, some of them can't even speak American !

Required kill switches and vaccine targets (1)

toppavak (943659) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306292)

Traditional methods of restricting and regulating dangerous technology have more or less worked so far, but the Economist thinks that this time may be different. They are calling for an open system where the 'good guys' can see and counter any dangerous organisms that are released, accidentally or otherwise.

Microorganisms aren't quite like software where vulnerabilities can be easily discovered from source code. Sure, having complete genomic and proteomic data makes finding potential vulnerabilities easier, but drug discovery and development is still extremely difficult and expensive even when such data already exists. A better solution would be to engineer susceptibility to a number of antimicrobials (both artificial and naturally occurring), say 6-9, which could be used in combinations of 2 or 3 which are rotated to prevent the development of resistance. This would be trivial to do from a technical standpoint. Even better would be to include dozens artificial and highly prominent surface markers into any artificial genome that could be used to quickly develop highly effective and selective vaccines should the need arise.

More foolish narrow vision... (2, Insightful)

TinkersDamn (647700) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306322)

The article is way too optimistic and as expected weak on science. They start out with the old mindset of each bacterial line being completely seperate, totally missing the extensive lateral gene transfers that have spread such wonders as antibiotic resistance and the toxins that created O157...
And follow it up with assumption that knowing the code makes it so much easier to figure out how to stop or fix any problem organisms arise. We still barely understand protein folding, and then only with the help of supercomputers.
Oh, and then you add a funny thing called evolution to add random mutations...
Life is a massively parallel ongoing experiment, with the current ecological terrain/surface the result of countless battles in multiple dimensions. And we are continually making the terrain more and more fragile through the chemicals we spew and spray all about the globe with hardly a clue of their impact let alone their combinatorial influence...
Unfortunately most humans are not saints, but lazy, greedy and sometimes outright paranoid and murderous. Expecting morals and miracles to stop mistakes is foolish.

The only thing I can think of (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306362)

It's aliiive !!!!

I remember years ago... (1)

MrAndrews (456547) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306378)

... a similar story on Slashdot talking about open sourcing the battle against disease, with the concept that "with enough eyes, all bugs become shallow", and ultimately how there was the concern that it would create a new type of malware that could do a lot more damage than the rest of the world could offset. I mean, even when we're trying to do good, we can make things that are utter poison... imagine if some borderline nutbar in a university lab got dumped by his girlfriend and decided to take revenge on women in general by making an airborne pathogen that would leave men intact. Sure, you could make an antidote with enough people and effort, but how many people wold die in the meantime? We see the battle between dedicated coders already with DRM and DRM-cracking... if that were to happen in the bio-tech space, it would be an utter disaster.

The Economist is right, to a point, but they seem to have more faith in humanity than humanity deserves.

(disclosure: that Slashdot story years ago led me to research and write a novel [amazon.com] about this type of scenario, so this is near and dear to my heart)

Re:I remember years ago... (1)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 4 years ago | (#32308058)

imagine if some borderline nutbar in a $X lab got treated badly by $Y_j in $Y and decided to take revenge on $Y by making a $Z that would leave $EVERYBODY - $Y intact. Sure, you could make an $ANTI_Z with enough people and effort, but how many people world die in the meantime? We see the battle between dedicated coders already with DRM and DRM-cracking... if that were to happen in the $X space, it would be an utter disaster.

It's easy for me to fill in these variables with things I don't know much about. The more I know about a subject, the harder it is to believe that it's possible for one person to have the foresight, depth of knowledge, and resources to single-handedly work around the enormous number of variations, complications, and unknowns that would get in the way of killing a large fraction of the human population.

I'm not saying it doesn't make for good fiction, just that doing anything wide-reaching in the real world is almost always orders of magnitude more difficult than anybody imagined it would have been.

Providing lists of variables previously used to make best-selling thrillers and propaganda films is left as an exercise for the reader.

Re:I remember years ago... (1)

MrAndrews (456547) | more than 4 years ago | (#32309030)

Well, admittedly the gap between a synthetic genome and widespread bioterror is pretty immense, but then the subject here is also open source biology, which I think assumes a lot of progress will need to be made in developing the science and tools as well. And once you start trying to develop those tools, it's pretty safe to say you'll discover what you SHOULDN'T do before you stumble upon any magic cures.

Never mind the Bond villain trying to take over the world, and never mind wiping out even a small fraction of the human population; all you need to do is make something that kills a few dozen people and has the APPEARANCE of being contagious, and you'll have a worldwide panic worse than H1N1. Make it easy for virus coders to share their work around the globe, and you've got the makings of something really terrible. It's not as sexy as a best-selling thriller, but it's just as scary.

Re:I remember years ago... (1)

Derf the (610150) | more than 4 years ago | (#32310532)

As my service to the whales, or just for your next book plot...

I can easily imagine a forward thinking wealthy middle eastern Muslim extremist who perceives the new expansionistic Chinese
[not all beliefs depicted here are held by the author]
as the greatest insult to Allah
[Christianity & it's bastard sons (the West etc.) being the old & quite useful enemy]
and
[hey pick any variables around the core of the not infinitely improbable Rich + Extremist + Longterm view]
have him specifically educate/indoctrinate his 'sons' to go out & gain the skills to be the lab designers/technicians within his own particularly private & well resourced compound
[a site later generations treat with a reverence equal of Mecca perhaps].
A little bit of advanced bio-engineering later & several billion humans turn into a one off methane emission spike.

Re:I remember years ago... (1)

Kilrah_il (1692978) | more than 4 years ago | (#32312096)

It always amazes me the power of buzz-words. I work in medicine and every few years you have a new buzz-word. A few years ago it was "anti-oxidants", and now angiogenesis [ted.com] is starting to pop-up, promising to cure everything from cancer, through impotence all the way to ingrown nails. And then some time passes, and you have some studies done and you find out that "Yes, it is good for some stuff, but isn't a Panacea [wikipedia.org] ."
The same thing is happening in IT. You get some concept, in this case open-source, that is good for some things. But then comes along someone who claims it is good for everything! For OS, and file systems, and backup, and web servers, and netbooks, and economy, and biology, and social science, and history (cue Texas joke), and sports, and sex (that should be an xkcd comics).
Of course open source is good for some of those things, and it may be good for what the article is proposing, but please, people, try to use some common sense and see when it is useful and when it isn't.

I'd like to open HER biology's source! (1)

TheVelvetFlamebait (986083) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306424)

If women open-sourced their biology, any geek could have any woman they wanted, as many times as they wanted!

And if you're worried about STDs, just compare Windows to Linux. Which has the most infections?

A new dystopia on the horizon (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306436)

Homeless programmers with pickets that read "Will code food for food".

a book on the topic (1)

null8 (1395293) | more than 4 years ago | (#32306576)

Just an Interesting Sci-Fi book by Frank Herbert(the one who wrote Dune) about what can happen if Bioengineering becomes more affordable: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_White_Plague [wikipedia.org]

It's already there. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32306640)

Look at all the database projects that have huge lists of experimental data. In fact, for some projects, if you are government funded you must publish your results into databases.

I don't see how it can get more open than that.

Patent Law (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#32307462)

If there is any open-source calling for synthetic biology, it should be in the vein of ensuring a free exchange of novel biological information. We are at a threshold of biotechnology, where the future can either be a restrictive science owned and controlled by Venture et al. or open source and freely available for others to develop upon and move forward in a contributive rather than competitive fashion. And open source is already inherent in science based on natural discovery. For novel invention and technology, think creative commons or GPL but applied to biotechnology.

"Knowledge cannot be unlearned" (1)

UBfusion (1303959) | more than 4 years ago | (#32309756)

I would seem that this quote from TFA could sum it all, but stating that "most bacteria opt for an easy life breaking down organic material that is already dead" clearly shows that the author has not grasped that Life cannot be studied separately from Evolution and Survival.

Billions of years ago, Evolution has started from such bacteria and led to us humans, for whom the "easy life" option is to "break down organic material" that is alive and well, preferably members of our own species.

From Evolution's point of view, Cannibalism and Capitalism are the two sides of the survival coin. Once as a kid (or even as a baby and some say even in the womb) you realize this, this knowledge indeed cannot be unlearned.

The real reason to worry about synthetic life is that you cannot just code into its DNA Asimov's laws of robotics, and even if you do, Evolution will actively and inevitably erase them. Several millenia of failure to achieve the same for humans provide ample evidence that this "arrow of knowledge", together with the arrow of time and the arrow of war is deeply programmed in our DNA.

To complete the above amateur attempt at a dialectic approach, another worrying fact is that Life itself ultimately seems to be based on both learning and unlearning. Do take the time to read about selective perception and just before you go to sleep, take the time to think why sleep is so necessary for Life. It's not just garbage collection. It's garbage in, garbage out. And no, garbage cannot be uncollected.

Bill Joy still relevent... (1)

g8orade (22512) | more than 4 years ago | (#32316272)

Re:Bill Joy still relevent...--"relevant" (1)

g8orade (22512) | more than 4 years ago | (#32316288)

it's relevant...

You thought jellyfish were a problem (1)

dalani (1569813) | more than 4 years ago | (#32319072)

You thought jellyfish were a problem; any science fiction writer could sketch out twelve different scenarios were out-of-control bacteria either eat up all plastic, mutate , then eat everything organic. Or Viagra bacteria escape into our drinking water.. Those are the funny scenarios.
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