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Taste of Tech: Biohacking the Future

How to make your own genetically modified seed—and what might happen if you do.

This Taste of Tech post is the fourth in a series exploring the science and technology of food in partnership with Gearfuse. Don't miss last week's post on the complicated relationship between industrial production lines and pure food by Matthew Battles.



Earlier this week, Popular Science published a step-by-step guide to building genetically modified seeds. The six-stage process they outline, from finding a new trait to seeing the new phenotype, takes at least a decade—and doesn't even include gaining regulatory approval. The mechanical processes of genetic engineering, shorn of any debate over ethics, safety, or intellectual property, are a curious blend of painstaking grunt-work and technological ingenuity.

For example, take a look at step two: grabbing genes from a seed. In the past, this was a lengthy and time-consuming process that involved "planting the seed, growing the plants to a certain size, and then clipping a paper-hole-puncher through a leaf to gather a sample."

To get around this, Monsanto engineers invented a special chipping device that shaves off just a tiny piece of the seed and grinds it into a powder that can be analyzed with genome-mapping technology. A blast of air separates the shavings from the rest of the seed; a bar code system ensures the two can be reconciled later. The device, about the size of a home air conditioner, can chip a seed every second.

It was easy to design a chipper for soybeans, because the seeds are shaped such that they always fall a certain way. But corn kernels are all different, and you don’t want to shave off the wrong part and kill the embryo. Monsanto’s corn chipper uses cameras and object-recognition algorithms to determine how each seed should be aligned for proper chipping. Next-generation chippers for melons and other fruits have a camera that takes 100,000 frames per second—all to help geneticists find new traits even faster.

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The rest of the how-to guide covers gene guns, Trojan Horse bacteria, and "an automatic germination system, which sucks up individual seeds, plants them, blows dirt from their roots to check their health, and automatically supplies nutrients the plant needs to grow." It's fascinating, but by the time you reach step six, you might well conclude that genetic engineering is an incredibly complex, expensive, and high-tech process.

And that's where you'd be wrong. The past couple of years have seen a steady growth of citizen "biohackers," doing things like inserting modified jellyfish genes into yogurt at home using nothing more than a plastic salad spinner and Ziploc bags. Last month, New York City's DIY genetic engineers welcomed the chance to get out of the garage with the opening of Genspace, the world's first government-compliant community biotech laboratory. As Wired reported, for the price of a "$100-per-month membership, anyone can use the space for whatever experiments they dream up." Current projects include "a bacteria-powered arsenic-detection kit and a biofuel algae experiment."

Community biotech labs are putting some of the more expensive tools within everyday citizens' reach, the biohackers themselves are putting the GMOs they develop in the public domain (unlike patent-hungry corporations), and specialized, potentially world-transforming expertise is being shared outside of the otherwise tiny and relatively homogeneous biotech elite.

These developments do not make everyone happy.

Although Wired reports that the FBI and NYPD have come around from their initial opposition to Genspace's plans (according to the founder, "The FBI now uses pictures of our space to show people what a [methamphetamine] drug lab doesn't look like"), authorities have taken apart home labs and confiscated equipment on several occasions in the past.

Environmental activists are also concerned that more widespread experimentation with genetic modification will increase the risk of a potentially harmful organism spreading into the wild. After all, as Helen Wallace of UK nonprofit Genewatch told The Guardian, "Scientists are notorious for not seeing the unintended consequences."

This is undoubtedly true—and imagining a world where genetic engineering becomes commonplace leads to a range of interesting speculations, some more attractive than others, on biotechnological resistance and enforcement. In Police Bees, the video below, British designer Thomas Thwaites envisions a future where the Metropolitan Police in London maintain their own apiaries in order to conduct genetic surveillance through pollen forensics.

[vimeo][/vimeo]

The bees, explains fictional officer Mark Machan, can gather pollen without a warrant, which the police can then analyze. If their tests detect patented genes, unlicensed pharmaceuticals, or even narcotics, the police will review the hive video cameras and establish the location of illegal plantings by decoding the returning bees' waggle dance.

Meanwhile, in an era when Monsanto can successfully sue for infringement if a farmer grows a plant that contains a patented gene (regardless of whether the gene arrived through cross-pollination, accidental contamination, or intentional theft), perhaps citizen biohackers might want to turn the tables, patent their own gene, seedbomb Monsanto test plots, and see them in court?

Images: (1) Soybeans growing in an automated greenhouse, photo by Monsanto, via Popular Science; (2) Chipped soybeans, photo by Monsanto, via Popular Science; (3) Genspace, photo by Daniel Grushkin.

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