O, Death.

I was around five-years-old when somebody I knew died. I can’t honestly remember who it was – a friend of my mother’s, or maybe a relative. My mom was trying to help me understand what was happening and why she was so sad. She explained to me, as I sat next to her, that everyone dies someday, and that dying means never coming back. It would happen to her, and to my grandparents, and my dad, and someday to me. She was trying to comfort me. She thought it would make me more at ease with the notion that life had boundaries. It didn’t work. I was devastated. I wouldn’t accept it – I couldn’t accept it. I cried for days. It changed my life; I never forgot.

The finitude of life as we know it remains unacceptable to me. I began in science because I was driven to find a way out. Genetics is where I wound up, but throughout my career as an academic and a researcher, I grew to understand that academia wasn’t (*isn’t*) motivated by the same things I am. I sought out the biggest, boldest idea I knew of – the Personal Genome Project – seeing the potential it had to change the way we understand and ultimately engineer ourselves – I introduced myself to the people making it happen, made my case, and moved to Boston to join them soon thereafter.

Best decision I could have made.

Surrounded by the brightest and most visionary people I’d ever encountered, I’ve had more revelations about the priority of enhancement in the past year than I’ve probably had in all the 22 before it. I’ve shifted my focus – away, for the moment, from immortality, and towards the kind of enhancement that will provide sustainability, intelligence, rationality, and responsibility to a group now approaching an unprecedented power.

We can achieve freedoms that no organism we know of has ever achieved; we can shape ourselves and our futures with control that is (as far as we know) uniquely human; my hope is that we will break our chains in the right order – to outgrow Darwinian evolution in such a way that we don’t allow the vestigial parts of ourselves to obstruct our long-term goals as they do now. We’re wasteful and hateful, shortsighted and narrow-minded, selfish and self-deceptive, competitive and corrosive – we are destructive by nature, and that’s a nature I propose we change before granting ourselves the superpowers that would enable  superdestruction.

That may sound like a sour note to land on, but I find it beautiful. I maintain optimism about our ability to improve ourselves on every level. Our leash is tight, but sufficiently long to look for ways to take it off, and to not go on a rampage once we do. I see greatness in us; I hope to make that greatness grow.

Citizen Science

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We live in a pretty amazing time and place. (If you’re reading this, I’ll presume that “we” probably includes you, even if you don’t know it yet.) We have at our disposal the ability to gather, share, collaborate over and interpret more data than any other generation in human history before us.

TeloMe just finished a crowdfunding campaign that introduced the world’s first low-cost, direct-to-consumer telomere analysis, only a few months after Talking20 introduced DTC blood tests and uBiome and The American Gut Project made DTC micriobiome analysis available for cheaper than they’ve ever been. If your head doesn’t teem with the possibilities for new better experiments (outside of the laboratory and in the real world), then you’re not thinking big enough yet.

A proposal:
Track the hormone levels (namely cortisol) and telomere lengths of students graduating high school, or college, or even middle school. Or adults changing jobs. Or teachers throughout a semester or over the course of a year. Measure the effects of the changing of the seasons or the advent of final exams on people willing to take spit and blood samples, and measure their mood every once in a while. Explore the relationship between a changing diet and a changing microbial ecosystem in your stomach or mouth or on your skin. Measure those changes against hormone levels or telomere lengths, and track it over time. It’s cheaper than it’s ever been. Spend $200, organize a group of participants to do the same, collect the data, write up your results and become a pioneer in independent science. You may not win a Nobel or turn your off-the-grid research into a career, but I guarantee you’ll be captivated by the process.

(Parents, do this for your kids. Get them started with Play-Doh and Legos and biomarker assays, and they’ll thank you later.)

Being a scientist isn’t difficult. We have what we need to discover new things – about ourselves, each other, and the world we inhabit.

A world with more scientists – more hypotheses and experiments and critical, rational thinking – is a better-understood and more understanding world. It’s a better world. Please, become a scientist today, because that’s a world I want to live in.

Related resources:

Ètude in DNA

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Science is a symphony.  For millennia, we’ve listened to the intricate sounds of the universe – observing and recording, trying to hear the rhythm, the melodies, harmonies and cadence – trying to decipher the language of everything.  With an insatiable appetite for the sounds of everything around us, we now, for the first time in the history of life as its known to us, stand prepared to make music of our own.  We’re going to borrow notes, sample melodies and infringe on cosmic copyrights, but we’re going to make noise.  I’m going to listen, to hear, to take in and reflect and try to learn the language of these sounds, with the intention of one day becoming a composer of serenades and and great symphonies.  I mean to build something, to make noise, to practice and give the world around me new songs to hear and enjoy and share and to draw inspiration from.  I mean to live forever through the echoes of my compositions – my contributions to science and for science, and for the endless parade of scientists and thinkers, dreamers, investigators and explorers that will follow us in our love of understanding.

Know Thyself, Today.

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Recently, both Illumina and Life Technologies announced new lines of genetic sequencing devices capable of greater speed and fidelity in genome sequencing, and at lower costs, than ever before.  This new generation of sequencing technology holds the promise of a $1,000 human genome sequence in less than a day.  While the “race to the bottom” of genome sequencing technology has been ongoing for years – bringing costs down from millions to thousands and the timelines from years to hours – this advancement is a milestone.  The $1,000 genome is finally within reach.

$1,000 has been the number to beat for a long time because it represents a cost that is relatively approachable from a clinical, medical perspective.  $1,000 is within the reach of patients and insurance companies and could find itself into hospitals and clinics with increasing reach.  Accessing your own personal information has never been cheaper and faster than it is today, and we can only estimate the effects that that access and that information will elicit.  Diagnostic sequencing could identify risk factors, pathogenic mutations and help tailor treatments to fit a patient’s personal profile (limiting drug-drug interference and other unintended and potentially-harmful interactions).  At the same time, the risk for genetic eavesdropping is higher than ever.  We’ve been exposed for years to the dystopic visions of genetic profiling throughout society and we’re only now at the beginning of that threat taking shape.  I have no doubt that there’s significant debate coming down the line for genomic privacy rights, and frankly, I’m looking forward to hearing the discourse that will ensue.

Still, as significant as this benchmark is, it’s not the end.  Not by a long shot.  The Archon Genomic X Prize is still a year away, and I have no doubt that within that time, technology will enable a race that exceeds the current goal by leaps and bounds.  100 genomes in 30 days?  How about 200?  First one to 1000 wins, maybe?  2013 is still a ways away and there’s every indication that the downward slope in the time and cost curves will continue.  Or such, at least, is my hope.

Truthfully, my interests for sequencing technology only start with humans.  Sure, there’s a medical and diagnostic significance to human genomic data, but our A’s, T’s, G’s and C’s are principally sorted by now.  The world is teeming with life that we haven’t yet begun to recognize, let alone understand.  With sequencing technology and techniques that offer insight into the function of organisms currently beyond our ability to characterize, we can develop a reservoir of genomic and genetic data that can contribute to a more complete understanding of life on (and off?) earth.  Life as we know is just that – as we know it.  With the forward sprint of sequencing technology, what we know about life will grow and expand and answer questions we’re only beginning to ponder.  How this understanding will impact us down the line – perhaps ultimately in the form of artificial and intentional genomic synthesis – I can’t yet say, but the possibilities seem to be growing by the day.  It’s justifiably exciting.

Pandoran Progress

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This morning, news broke that brought life to a fear that had until now been hypothetical, and one that had been wielded by critics of both synthetic biology and open science for a long time.  It’s one that now weighs heavily upon us all.  Dutch researchers manipulating the H5N1 flu virus intend to publish the results of their research, which invariably includes details as to the mechanisms of pathogenicity and mutability of the virus – information that could theoretically be used with malicious intent to augment pathogenicity in this or other flu strains, ultimately posing a threat as an intentional biological weapon.  Thus, a philosophical challenge presents itself in a very real format: What are the costs and benefits of open science?  How open can science safely be?

“There are areas of science where information needs to be controlled,” the scientist said. “The most extreme examples are, for instance, how to make a nuclear weapon or any weapon that is going to be used primarily to kill people. The life sciences really haven’t encountered this situation before. It’s really a new age.”

I’m torn.  From a scientific perspective, I understand why this research was undertaken and also why the results are important – a fuller understanding of the mechanisms of mutation and pathogenicity in a virus of this kind can lend to the development of more direct and effective responses (or preventions) to an outbreak.  In the right minds and the right hands, this research could potentially contribute to a better method of treatment.  If, however, this information were to find its way into the “wrong” minds – those with malicious intent – it could provide the insight necessary to intentionally increase the pathogenicity of a virus.  On the one hand, there is an opportunity to put a more comprehensive understanding to work saving lives, on the other, that understanding could contribute to the threat of taking lives.  It’s a tricky situation and one that I haven’t yet found a clear answer for yet.

My first thoughts favor openness.  I perceive the benefits to outweigh the risks and that the biosecurity groups – in favor of the censorship of this (and likely other) knowledge – are overreacting and ultimately limiting the potential good that could result from studies like this.  The case for open science is strong, but I fear that it’s not strong enough to overcome fear itself.  There may not be substantial reason to be afraid – I personally don’t believe that there are a significant amount of evildoers with the resources to use this knowledge for doing evil, but I will concede that evildoers exist and could potentially put new knowledge to use with malicious intent.  That uncertainty is enough to instill a fear that will, I regret to believe, empower a new wave of regulations to limit the spread of knowledge.

Regulations of this nature are a direct and immediate threat to a movement that I believe has the power to change the world for the better.  The fears that will authorize these regulations are the same fears that allow a nervous uncertainty and a dark view of human nature to overpower an acknowledgement of the potential for positive change (cheaper, faster, better techniques and technology to combat disease, produce and provide goods and services that benefit all of mankind).  This movement represents a decentralization – a de-institutionalization – of research science and provides lower barriers to production and discovery.  This movement is still very much in its formative stages, and is, I fear, vulnerable to being prematurely stamped out by the sorts of regulations that will doubtlessly be proposed as a result of today’s news.  What I foresee is both censorship of and restriction to research science involving the fundamental mechanisms of life – limiting the access of such knowledge to only a handful of tightly-controlled groups and keeping it out of the hands of much of the world’s scientific community.  This sort of ruling would invariably inhibit independent research from taking place…openly.  I think the worst-case scenario actually involves a truly underground movement wherein “biohackers” are driven back into their garages and basements to work in seclusion and without accountability or support on problems and projects they undertake that might relate to the machinery of life and the ability to manipulate it intentionally.

The beauty of the DIY Bio community is in its openness.  Through communication and collaboration, support and guidance can contribute to safe and ethical practices amongst independent scientists, as well as for accountability on behalf of those taking part.  There’s a tremendous amount people curious enough about life itself to study it, and I doubt that curiosity can be fully extinguished by law, so it’s my position that this community should be treated as an asset and not a threat – something to be nurtured and developed and brought into the light to avoid its population from retreating back into the dark.  These are the formative years and we have the power to direct the development this community – this movement – in a way that can address the concerns of openness, but it must first be allowed the opportunity to develop.

I’ll be interested to see what regulations are proposed as a result of this (and likely other) studies.  I expect that this really is the beginning of a new age in biological science and I have high hopes and a great deal of optimism, but also a healthy fear for the effects of fear itself.

Article: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/alarm-as-dutch-lab-creates-highly-contagious-killer-flu-6279474.html

Hello World!

Welcome to my mind.  It’s my hope to use this blog to not only share my own thoughts and ideas, but also to gather some of yours.  I’ll do my best to update this regularly, and while I don’t promise to be eloquent at all times, I’ll do my best to be clear, concise and complete in my writing.  Those aren’t typically adjectives used to describe my writing, but I promise to make the effort.

My name is Alex and I am a scientist.  I do science.  I’ve been studying genetics, genomics and microbiology at Michigan State University for three-and-a-half years now, and have been working as a researcher for almost as long.  The truth is that I think I’ve been a scientist for as long as I can remember, which is to say that I’ve been taking a scientific approach to addressing questions throughout my life.  Life itself is what fascinates me, and so genetics became the focus of my studies.  There’s a lot I don’t understand, but want to, and so my hope is that through communicating with some of you, perhaps I can help fill the gaps and develop a deeper understanding of life (the universe, and everything).

I hope to contribute interesting thoughts and get some in return.  I’m looking forward to it.