REVIEW

This week we’re listening to: Biotechnology’s potential and how it is already changing the world

By Sarah Hoek 3 June 2021
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Image: Pixabay

Biotechnology is defined as products deriving ‘from the extraction or manipulation of living organisms’ – and its range of applications is incredibly broad. We explore what it is, who ‘does it’ and how it affects us.

Ellen Jorgensen: On Biotech’s Potential and the Complexities of Regulation – Big Tech

  • Format: Single episode;
  • Year: 2020;
  • Listen on: CIGI website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Biotechnology is changing the world we live in. The field, which uses “biological processes for industrial and other purposes, especially through genetic manipulation of microorganisms”, according to Big Tech (a platform presented by the Centre for International Governance Innovation), is undergoing massive growth. Biotech has also come under the public microscope, as genetically modified embryos and the like cause major controversy.

In this episode of Big Tech, hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen interview Dr Ellen Jorgensen – the chief scientific officer at Aanika Biosciences and co-founder of Genspace, a community biology lab – about the future of biotechnology and the rise of the DIY biohacker.

Jorgensen explains that her community of biohackers involves “biotechnology done in an unconventional space by people who aren’t normally engaging in it”. For the most part, biotechnology is only accessible to researchers in labs or academic spaces like universities – the average person is not able to walk into a lab and conduct an experiment, and renting the space can cost thousands of dollars, she says. 

Jorgensen is trying to democratise the sciences, allowing more people access to the world of biohacking.

“Some of the most interesting experiments I’ve seen have been a collaboration between someone who doesn’t know science but has a really interesting idea, and a friend of theirs who is a practising scientist. And between the two of them they’ll start a company, and there’s no space for that sort of stuff in the society,” Jorgensen says.

This inspired the start of Genspace, the community biology lab that gives access to anybody who wants to explore the natural world but who would not normally have access to the equipment, knowledge and space to do so. 

Jorgensen says the lab is used by people from all disciplines, “from bio-artists who want to engage in biotech for their artistic practice, to teachers who want to stage some of their lessons and try things out in our space before they spend a lot of money on a kit for their classroom”, as well as the ordinary Joe who is just curious and wants to learn more. These are the biohackers of the natural world.

Biotech in a changing world

Gene editing is one of “the biggest science stories of the decade”, according to a Vox article, but it’s also one of the most controversial.

CRISPR is one of the main gene-editing systems, and it works to “exploit a quirk in the immune systems of bacteria to edit genes in other organisms – plants, mice, even humans. With CRISPR they can now make these edits quickly and cheaply, in days rather than weeks or months,” the article explains, allowing you to “control which genes get expressed”, which in turn gives “the ability to delete undesirable traits and, potentially, add desirable traits with more precision than ever before”.

Pretty cool, and it understandably excited the scientific community, but it also raised a lot of questions about the ethics of it, and the fact that we now have to contend with questions we’ve never had to think of before. These are questions that the podcast hosts bring up, and Jorgensen does not shy away from them.

Should everybody have access to biotechnology? Owen points out that “over the past decade there really has been a change in the technological capacity”, which leads him to question the ethics of the world opening up to biotech.

But Jorgensen points out the beauty of experimenting in the natural world, arguing that everyone should be able to do it.

“Anyone can discover something if they’re lucky enough… we see amazing things coming out of grassroots biology,” she says. “Nature is everywhere, DNA is everywhere, DNA is available to anyone.”

Skok counters that surely when such knowledge opens up beyond the scientific community it can get into the wrong hands – “it could be a terrorist, for all you know”. He isn’t wrong, Jorgensen admits, but at the same time she argues that this is true of most things – there are always going to be bad actors. 

As to the “grow your own baby” debate, which Owen brings up, Jorgensen says it’s a lot more complicated than we have been led to believe.

“There’s all of this hysteria about how CRISPR, which is one of the main gene-editing systems, is so simple that anyone can use it. That’s a bit of a myth,” Jorgensen explains. Yes, it is fairly easy when working with a laboratory organism, such as a strain of bacteria. When it comes to “designer babies”, you need a lot more equipment and very specific facilities – the chances are not very high that your neighbour is doing it in their garage, she assures. DM/ML

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