Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Biohackers, an Imagined Threat Brought to you by the Mainstream Media

The possibility of an enemy using bio-weapons against us is no joke. There is a threat out there. How big it is I don't know.

William Lind's latest "On War" column features a commentary about amateur scientists (biohackers) having acquired an edge sharp enough that it can hurt us now or in the near future. This commentary is based on a front page story ran by the Wall Street Journal on May 12, that plainly implies bio-hackers have accumulated enough know-how to create bio-weapons.

Before I go any further, some clarifications about my background so to add more credibility to this entry. I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology. I have published in peer-reviewed journals, including a book chapter and two reviews. I've been a professional scientist, a mix of microbiologist, cell-biologist, geneticist and biochemist, for the last 15 years.

The story ran by the Wall Street Journal is a disgrace. It falsely puts science enthusiasts, with the cool name of "biohackers" at a level of know-how enough to create a bio-weapon.

Science reporting in mainstream media has gone from mediocre to just plain bad lately. I don't know what's happening. Maybe it's because the sorry state of science education? We live in a media-driven world where the image of a scientist is closer to a character from the TV series CSI than to any of the thousands of great scholars this country has produced.

Letting this story out in the front page of the WSJ without checking facts first is irresponsible. Sure, the so-called biohackers can grow bacteria and bacteriophages (virus that attack bacteria) in a makeshift incubator. Biohackers can amplify a few hundred base pairs in a thermocycler bought from EBay (the equipment at the bottom of the closet in the picture shown at the WSJ's article). Biohackers can buy a few thousand base pairs of DNA online.

So what?

Biotechnology is both expertise and capital intensive. There is no chance these enthusiasts will ever come out of their closet with an engineered organism. Even a biologist equivalent of the genius tycoon that built himself an Iron Man suit, with no shortage of money and ideas, would have trouble to do something as humble as such a bio-weapon. Scientific research is a social activity, not the lone wolf venture the WSJ is reporting about.

Mr. Editor of the Wall Street Journal: thanks for alarming and making us dumber,.


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