Wednesday, May 16, 2018

DIY DNA Tinkering...,


NYTimes  |  If nefarious biohackers were to create a biological weapon from scratch — a killer that would bounce from host to host to host, capable of reaching millions of people, unrestrained by time or distance — they would probably begin with some online shopping.

A site called Science Exchange, for example, serves as a Craigslist for DNA, a commercial ecosystem connecting almost anyone with online access and a valid credit card to companies that sell cloned DNA fragments.


Mr. Gandall, the Stanford fellow, often buys such fragments — benign ones. But the workarounds for someone with ill intent, he said, might not be hard to figure out.

Biohackers will soon be able to forgo these companies altogether with an all-in-one desktop genome printer: a device much like an inkjet printer that employs the letters AGTC — genetic base pairs — instead of the color model CMYK.

A similar device already exists for institutional labs, called BioXp 3200, which sells for about $65,000. But at-home biohackers can start with DNA Playground from Amino Labs, an Easy Bake genetic oven that costs less than an iPad, or The Odin’s Crispr gene-editing kit for $159.

Tools like these may be threatening in the wrong hands, but they also helped Mr. Gandall start a promising career.

At age 11, he picked up a virology textbook at a church book fair. Before he was old enough for a driver’s permit, he was urging his mother to shuttle him to a research job at the University of California, Irvine.

He began dressing exclusively in red polo shirts to avoid the distraction of choosing outfits. He doodled through high school — correcting biology teachers — and was kicked out of a local science fair for what was deemed reckless home-brew genetic engineering.

Mr. Gandall barely earned a high-school diploma, he said, and was rebuffed by almost every college he applied to — but later gained a bioengineering position at Stanford University.


“Pretty ironic, after they rejected me as a student,” he said.

He moved to East Palo Alto — with 14 red polo shirts — into a house with three nonbiologists, who don’t much notice that DNA is cloned in the corner of his bedroom.

His mission at Stanford is to build a body of genetic material for public use. To his fellow biohackers, it’s a noble endeavor.

To biosecurity experts, it’s tossing ammunition into trigger-happy hands.

“There are really only two things that could wipe 30 million people off of the planet: a nuclear weapon, or a biological one,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, an adviser on pandemic influenza preparedness to the World Health Organization.

“Somehow, the U.S. government fears and prepares for the former, but not remotely for the latter. It baffles me.”