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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Homebrew Molecular Biology Club

posted by on November 6 at 11:30 AM

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 Clubliterally 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?

RSS icon Comments


It's spelled "Khan" in both instances, and often "KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!" in the second.

Posted by Jason Petersen | November 6, 2007 11:40 AM

As part of that select class of Americans with enough wealth to personally dispense research grants, by whatever review process deemed appropriate, why doesn't Andy put his $ where his mouth is?

Posted by tsm | November 6, 2007 11:47 AM

Thank you Jason. I've corrected the post.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | November 6, 2007 11:52 AM

As I said on slashdot, Andy is mostly wrong. He fails to comprehend the chief barriers are funding and marketing, and has the non-biochem way of seeing things as binary or gate controlled, when biochemical and genetic systems are multi-path and constantly changing - even counts are impacted by the time used to count and the method of counting impacting the system.

Tell him to open up his checkbook and make sure the parts he does grok (marketing and distribution) work as well as they can. But fund some basic research which is where we're dying.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 6, 2007 12:02 PM

Grove seems to have the impression that the scientific process should be like the hacker ethic, and that's where he is wrong. We have over 400 years of steady progress making use of the scientific method, whereas unrestrained marketing of inappropriate technologies is largely what has gotten us into the substantial environmental mess we're in today.

Posted by Tlazolteotl | November 6, 2007 12:08 PM

I'm a supporter of amateur biological experimentation, however I have no money to fund it...

Posted by Hernandez | November 6, 2007 12:11 PM

I dislike his use of the term 'cultural revolution.'

Posted by Greg | November 6, 2007 12:14 PM

BODIED @ Khaaaaaaaaan

Posted by lar | November 6, 2007 12:38 PM

For some thoughts about why this might not be such a good idea, see The White Plague by Frank Herbert.

Posted by Westside forever | November 6, 2007 12:41 PM

Inherently more dangerous?

I used to "program" computers to explode with disks (Army, combat field engineer) that made them into shrapnel.

Most of the people doing bioengineering are just making mice that glow when they have cancer or things like that.

It depends upon what you mean by danger - although I guess the mice might keep you up at night ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 6, 2007 12:42 PM

Sure you did, Will.

Posted by Fnarf | November 6, 2007 1:09 PM

This guy who I read about this weekend is sort of doing this--a former radio engineer who got cancer, then set about trying to figure out if radio waves could destroy cancer cells. Turns out they can...

Posted by Seth | November 6, 2007 1:22 PM

Oh Will...

Posted by Mr. Poe | November 6, 2007 1:31 PM

@11 - sorry, it was part of my job. My faves were 3.5 inch floppies, since the hard shell is easier, but you can always just put a device on top of the main chip that is heat-triggered.

But I love glow mice - they make for fun party animals.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 6, 2007 2:08 PM

i was under the impression that since the the biotech industry explosion, applicable science was actually where most of the funding has been going these days, and investigators doing basic research were the ones scraping for cash. but maybe that's swinging back in the other direction now. well in any case, it's all interconnected, and you can't have applied research without the basic research to push it along.

one issue with "big pharma" that may be holding back progress is that they don't put a lot of funding into their own research, istead waiting for smaller companies to do the dirty work, then they swoop in, buy them out, and fire everyone [yeah i'm looking at you, pfizer!]. over time, this has a crippling effect on the industry.

but ultimately i don't think the "danger" is the issue [come on, really?], rather that basic lab equipment is waaaaay expensive [ever buy a centrifuge before?], as are the reagents, etc etc e t c... it's all about the benjamins.

Posted by brandon | November 6, 2007 3:38 PM

It's not just expensive, it needs a lot of power to run it. Lab space has massive energy requirements.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 6, 2007 3:57 PM


Agreed that cost is a major factor. By looking around, and finding out where I can cut corners--using chelex resin rather than PCI or a Qiagen kit to purify DNA, for example--things can be made affordable. Besides, just like with the HCC, a group could buy and share some surplus equipment.

As far as the danger, I am really not sure. Unlike computers, living things are able to make unlimited copies of themselves--a small mistake can be amplified and spread pretty easily. At my day job I'm careful to bleach genetic material and GMO's. Things like ethidium bromine (used to see DNA) are, without a doubt, powerful carcinogens. Still, I'm game if the lawyers are. ;p

Posted by Jonathan Golob | November 6, 2007 4:03 PM

And you can always use the built-in incinerators at any biochem lab.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 6, 2007 4:47 PM

I added GFP to an ornamental tropical fish species in a guy's garage once. I cloned and cut the vector in a lab, but the actual injections were all done with borrowed and donated equipment right there in his garage/small-scale hatchery.

That said, for the reasons you list and others, I think that Grove comes across as majorly naive on this.

Posted by Bison | November 6, 2007 5:19 PM

I'm a bit dismayed by his casual dismissal of research that doesn't ferret out disease as being, essentially, less worthwhile or conducted by the scientifically lazy. It'd be pretty hard to cure certain neurological diseases (to pick an example based on the conference he was speaking at) if there wasn't core research going on just to understand how the damn brain works in the first place. Bejesus, does every human activity now have to get turned into something that involves a "business plan"? Blech. Please, computer scientists of the world, not everything has to be modeled on your view of how things should work.

Posted by Courtney | November 6, 2007 6:35 PM

Stay! Or go! But do it because it is your decision.

If the research conditions here aren't good, one can always explore other countries, other universities. A global warming physicist friend of mine just left NASA for Paris.

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