Science Homebrew Molecular Biology Club
posted by November 6 at 11:30 AMon
Andy Grove, the co-founder and long-time CEO of Intel, threw down on modern biology.
In a speech at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, he challenges big pharma companies, many of which haven’t had an important new compound approved in ages, and academic researchers who are content with getting NIH grants and publishing research papers with little regard to whether their work leads to something that can alleviate disease, to change their ways.
Grove, as he continued his thoughts in the interview with Newsweek.
The peer review system in grant making and in academic advancement has the major disadvantage of creating conformity of thoughts and values. It’s a modern equivalent of a Middle Ages guild, where you have to sing a particular way to get grants, promotions and tenure…There is no place for the wild ducks. The result is more sameness and less innovation. What we need is a cultural revolution in the research community, academic and non-academic. We need to give wild ducks the opportunity to emerge and quack their way to success…(Emphasis added.)
Up to the mid-1970’s academic and industrial computer engineering could be subjected to the same criticism. Despite dramatic advances in technology—including Grove’s own microprocessor—computers were still thought of as mainframes, with extremely limited military and business applications. It took groups like the Homebrew Computer Club—literally a bunch of unshaved guys in a garage—to create the personal computer and really revolutionize the world. It took guys setting up BBS’s in their basement, and noodling around with GOPHER to usher in the internet era. While Andy is correct: computers have become ever faster, they haven’t really become more capable since the paired birth of the PC and the Internet.
Why hasn’t there been a Homebrew Molecular Biology Club? The technology behind molecular biology has arrived—equivalent to where computer components were in the mid-1970’s. Well designed commercial kits are available for just about any task.
I’ve considered posting directions on Slog, using these kits, for a variety of projects one could do at home or in a garage: make glow-in-the-dark sourdough bread, detect rodent DNA in food, check your DNA to see if you’re related to Ghengis Khan.
I’ve held off because molecular biology is inherently dangerous, much more so than building a computer or programming an Apple IIe. The same tools used to label, cut or modify experimental DNA would be glad to chew up yours—many are potent cancer-causing agents. Your glow-in-the-dark yeast could easily spread to your neighbor’s kitchen. Do you really want to know if there is rat shit in your dinner? KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!
Am I wrong to be so cautious? Is Andy right?