HSP’s current cohort of Futures Fellows from the MENA region recently completed a module on dual use research of concern (DURC). DURC is defined by the WHO as “life sciences research that is intended for benefit, but which might easily be misapplied to do harm.” Their assignment was to discuss the concept of “DIYBio” (“Do-it-yourself-biology”), or “biohacking”, and its relationship to DURC. DIYBio is a movement that makes biotechnology available to the public in labs outside of those found in academia and industry. Fellows were asked to discuss if DIYBio represented a net benefit or net harm to society, while discussing ways that the global scientific community could promote responsible science principles. The following are responses from three of our fellows:
Photo: Arslan Sarwar
DIY Biotechnology is very related to DURC because it has dual uses, such as we can edit or remove a gene from one type of fruit to produce an improved species of fruit. On the other hand, if we have a virus, we can edit its genes to become more harmful to others. The global scientific community can safeguard these technologies and still foster scientific advancement by doing it step by step. First, spread the knowledge about these technologies and its benefits to the public. Second, establish a public science fair or convention to show experiments of these technologies to the public. Third, encourage people to invest in it. Finally, present and summarize research in these fields in a simple, uncomplicated way, so we can activate a role of science communicators in society. The scientific community can also prevent these technologies from being misused by creating awareness campaigns about them and designating trusted trainers in labs to train non-scientists. Additionally, surveillance of biohacker spaces by a designated person responsible for it. We also need to be sure to control the safety and security of these technologies by putting laws in place.
Undoubtedly, DIYBio will provide several benefits. First, amateurs’ interest in a variety of scientific methods that require a huge financial burden will enable the development of cheaper alternative technologies, perhaps a $600 PCR machine that is an alternative to a $10,000 Thermal Cycler. Secondly, individuals will use scientific methods to enhance their quality of life, which will ensure that new technological developments are directed to respond to those demands. On the other hand, the possible misuse of DIYBio will bring biosafety and bioterrorism concerns. For example, working with pathogens causes concern for bioterrorism and personal DNA studies could facilitate access to individual data to improve personal biological weapons. In that case, DIYBIO is a good example of dual use research of concern (DURC) with its bidirectional effect.
New technologies being developed such as synthetic biology, gene editing, gene drives, and nanobiotechnology and the cheaper techniques that make them easier to implement have sped up the DIYBio movement. It will be impossible and unnecessary to stand in front of these movements with bans. DIYBio is a process that is both beneficial and damaging and this direction can be assessed within the DURC context. However, those who support science and development should develop a series of training and follow-up processes and take the responsibility for guiding this movement to increase its beneficial effect and prevent its misuse.
I believe new technology can have dual faces. On one side they can be beneficial, while on other side they can be harmful. It also depends upon a person and community how they want to use it. Overall, I believe new technologies can bring overall positive role or benefit to the community. New emerging technologies with decreasing costs pose a great benefit to humanity. However, there is always a group of people who utilize such benefit in a different way. New technologies may be a direct or indirect cause of harmful threats to the community, but I do not believe in the blocking of scientific knowledge due to the threat of misuse. We need to educate and promote bioethical education to the young scientists. We need more training for the science community to promote healthy use of science while targeting potential weak points, such as malicious groups, which can harbor these direct and indirect threats to the community.