Random thoughts- bioart

I’ve found that one of the greatest barriers to writing something down regularly these days is a concern that I’d piss someone off.

What a way to grow up.

 

While wrapping up last of the sequencing reactions accumulated these past few days I found myself wondering about bioart again- there was a time when I was completely nuts over the concept of artscience, and pushed as hard as I could to get some bioart representation within the Genspace hierarchy. We didn’t even have PCR machines back then, it was before Ellen got the equipment from Vector donated after it downsized and closed down the lab she was managing, and way before we found MEx through bunch of random people. It was a life time ago.

Anyway, my earlier perception of ‘artscience’ at the time, as vague as it was, brought to mind something curious, something like Leonardo Da Vinci but for the modern age. Scientific discovery and application dictated by aesthetic sense to create something beautiful and perhaps even meaningful. Being freshly out from school it was a view uninformed by realities of both scientific research and how many artists operate.

From a general point artscience as it stands right now seem to refer to anything and everything created and curated using tools normally reserved for usually inaccessible scientific research for purposes of artistic expression- and nothing else. It’s art as usual except the tubes of paints and canvas got switched out to some other things associated with science (or should I say popular perception of science? No real scientist I know plays around with that much colored liquid, or uses racks of test tubes). 

It brings up an interesting question on what artscience actually is. When you really dig into the history of arts from across the globe, the techniques of art was never really far away from experimentation and keeping track of data- the practice of simply walking into a store to buy tubes of paint without knowing how it’s made and where it came from is a ridiculously modern one. Same goes for architecture. The amount of experimentation and fundamental knowledge that has to be learned to be even remotely adapt at the craft is extensive- otherwise you have a lot of dead people on your hands. Experimentation, data gathering, perfection over life time and generations- are all rather common practices in the arts.

In that light, what IS artscience? It’s highly probable Da Vinci was on the cutting edge of chemistry at the time just from making his paint and gunpowder for fireworks. Same goes for almost all the older masters. If it’s simply using scientific means and tools for purposes of art how is that so radically different from what people had been doing for most of history, when you consider that ‘traditional’ tools of art themselves were products of experimentation?

Here’s another kicker- the relatively recent interest in bioart, itself a practical artscience of sorts, is based on broader accessibility of the tools and better abstraction of ideas that allows any sufficiently funded and motivated artist to use the tools usually associated with pure research. Easier accessibility to better and more professional tools of the scientific trade by the layman will be a continuing trend for the foreseeable future… So what does artscience do that’s really different when the science part of it is as normal as walking into an arts supply store and buying tubes of paint?

Is it even real? If it is, where is it going?

 

And all this is without even getting into the difference between science and technology.

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I’m alive again.

Stare at my awesome new PCR machine. And tell me the darn thing isn’t cute. And ignore the carpet from the 70’s it’s sitting on.

It’s been… More than a year since I’ve uploaded anything to this blog. During that time only thing I’ve written long form were occasional tumblr posts dealing with what’s been happening in my life or some dry master plan to rule the universe through the power of science, typical student stuff.

I’ve stopped blogging on this site ever since I started working at Genspace NYC as one of its co-founders and one of the three people who actually did things in the lab instead of talking about biosafety. In retrospect I should have expected to spend a huge chunk of my life helping to plan and run a fully functioning molecular biology lab on shoestring budget, but I never really realized what kind of commitment it would be before it hit me in the face full force. During the heydays of doing projects in the lab I was spending about 12 hours per day running experiments, no weekends, no vacations. And that was while working full-time in other jobs too, since nothing at Genspace paid anything… Well, that’s not strictly true. I did earn enough here and there to get by if I didn’t have to worry about rent and supporting other people, but alas, that’s not the case for me.

Now that I look back at it I feel like I was dreaming for the past three or so years. I dreamt that I was contributing to some pioneering vision, each hour spent while almost blanking out from lack of sleep building toward something greater. Something that might even change the world into a bit more agreeable place. Now, the dream is over. It’s been over for the past half a year, it’s only that I lived in rather characteristically stubborn denial during that time, probably causing some level of annoyance to some of the other Genspacers.

I’ve resigned all my positions at the Genspace NYC lab. I’m not a board member, not an officer, and not a member of the space, though I still have to get all the books and other things I’ve built up in there out. And I think I made the right choice.

Stepping back from Genspace brought me some new perspective, some of which I’m still trying to get used to. Maybe I’ll write about some of the lessons once my head is completely cleared up… I’m still suffering from a bit of a shell shock.  Here’s a short, non-comprehensive list before I forget them later though.

  • DIYbio is not amateur biology
  • Issues of biosafety, a byproduct of initial DIYbio hype being tied to the hype about synthetic biology, completely poisoned good people and good initiatives
  • Despite the biosafety scare no constructive discussion on potential safety and other broader concerns about amateur genetic engineering ever took place. If it did I never heard about it in my three years of genetically engineering e.coli and plants in a warehouse in Brooklyn, some of them involving processes using toxic chemicals -disposed properly, of course
  • Involvement of FBI in reaching out to the DIYbio-amateur genetic engineering community was a double edged sword, in that it helped form a weird perception of hierarchy in some of the people who were in more direct contact with the FBI
  • One of the direct negative results of the biosafety scare and FBI involvement was creation of a group of amateurs whose sole responsibility, in a sense, is to tell other amateurs what to do. Coincidentally those people rarely have any projects under their belt, and are usually not very literate in lab safety practices due to utter lack of experience
  • Considering that no one really listens to above group of people anyway (except maybe reporters, grant organizations and the FBI, none of whom practices garage biohacking, to my knowledge) it’s only served to keep people who had running projects underground due to potential nagging from strangers with no valuable input
  • Despite my comments, I still give high marks to the FBI for deciding not to just tap everybody’s phone. It would have been a waste of their resources, and I view their assessment as very accurate
  • TED conference is the hip rich people’s leadership seminar camp, with some amazing thinkers and respectable individuals thrown in (unlike leadership seminar camps). Still so much better and inclusive than Davos. Perhaps even more effective
  • Maker Faires are what dreams are made of, and more places should have them
  • It’s incredibly easy to put together a minimal molecular biology lab. I just finished putting mine together outside Genspace for about a thousand dollars, including essential reagents. I also helped one of my students put his own together
  • Community lab model doesn’t work as is. Current model assumes new members to be incompetent, in a sense. At least not good enough to work in a ‘real lab.’ And current models drive managers of the community lab to have vested interest in keeping most of the members scientifically illiterate after a certain point, with a few outliers
  • Education should be done by educators. Scientists should provide the materials the educators can work with – reproducibility and clear, comprehensive documentation
  • There are more than a few high schools out there that covers genetic engineering with their students. There are a few that even covers synthetic biology
  • Despite relatively minimal PR, they tend to have worse access to equipment and reagents than most DIYbio/amateur genetic engineering labs, but have better results

I’m definitely missing a whole boatload of important points. I’ll get back to them later when it’s not seven AM with zero sleep last night.

Outside of reflecting on what I’ve been doing for the past three years of my life, I also got a chance to get in touch with and work with lots of interesting people around the city. It turns out that the DIYbio-NYC list I founded couple of years ago was moderator locked after a group vote (that later grew into Genspace) due to potential security issues, and interested people around the city did not have a place to converse about local going-ons with each other. So I just remedied that problem as well.

Here’s a message that went out to people last night:

 

 

Good news, everyone 😉

I’ve just turned off all the moderation settings on the diybio-nyc mailing list, and renamed it biohack-nyc@googlegroups.com 

The list was dead for a while what with everyone needing permission to post on it (which was in place by group decision at the time, what with biosafety scares and all). It was also true that there just weren’t that many people out there who were working on stuff as well. 

Well I’ve been talking to quite a few number of new yorkers out there and things are happening all over the city now. And there has to be a place for people to brainstorm and meet up with each other with a little local flavor. Keeping the list moderated like in the past would have been disservice to the community at large. 

Hopefully this can serve as one of the many springboards available in NYC to help aspiring biohackers learn their trade. 

Spread the word, join up yourself, be excellent to each other and have fun! 

biohack-nyc@googlegroups.com

https://groups.google.com/d/forum/biohack-nyc 

 

 

And yes, I changed the name from DIYBio-NYC to biohack-nyc because

1) as a screw-you to people who are still scared of the term hacker

2)I keep hearing things about the term/group DIYbio that makes me feel like it’s something I can’t agree with.

Hopefully this will begin to attract some brilliant minds that I know are out there to coming out of their genetic engineering closet. And maybe some activity will spur me to write  a whole lot more as a well. God knows I really need to.

edit: before I pass out, I want to go on the record as having said that, despite personal differences, almost everything I know about biology now I learned from Ellen Jorgensen and Oliver Medvedik from Genspace NYC. And I still recommend students and hobbyists go check out the Genspace NYC lab over at 33 Flatbush ave, because, quite frankly, there’s nothing else like it.  

Wings of Genspace

With the Genspace business and other stuff I’m working on picking up steam, it’s getting increasingly difficult to come up with decent enough blog posts these days. I’m still not sure whether this is a good thing or not. I love being busy pursuing my dreams, but writing is about the only thing that’s keeping me sharp, so that worries me a little. Maybe I’m slowly slipping into some state of waking coma…. Either way, I’m doing some really interesting things, so I might as well have a record of some of them here.

Genspace is in full swing, and Ellen’s busy running her biotech crashcourse, with other group-wide projects planned out already. Who would have thought we’d actually have a functioning biotech lab in NYC two years ago? Kudos to the people who stood by us all this time. Just having a lab is not enough though, we’ll be introducing some pretty awesome projects soon, just stay tuned!

I have so many things I want to write about now that I’m finally sitting in front of a computer and logged into my blogging account… But good things need time to mature, like hot pot. So I think I’ll just write about that one thing I’m supposed to talk about in this post 🙂

So we (me and Oliver) are planning to launch a high altitude microbial sampler into the stratosphere and do metagenomic analysis of whatever the samples we can gather from there. Right now I’m thinking of about 25~30km altitude, which should be around temperature range of -50 ~ -20 degrees C, which is really cold but not quite as cold as the furthest reaches of antarctica. Just to give you a scale of how high we’re going, latest version of Boeing 747 has top service ceiling of about 13km altitude. Our device will be flying at or above the double that altitude. Here’s an interesting picture of the Earth taken around 20 km.

Now simply launching a weather balloon into the stratosphere with some minor circuits, GPS and a digital camera would be simple. In fact, if it’s all I wanted I can just walk out there and launch my own balloon-sat right now. Yet, what’s the point in doing what everybody else is already doing, am I right? Now that we have a working biology lab we need to do something to bring my love of space together with my love of biology. Which means microbiome sequencing using samples taken from the above.

You see, there’s practically no real research data on the microbiome of the high altitudes. Considering the resilience of life (if you throw bunch of fruits out into the space from ISS, they’ll survive -kind of) and interlinked atmospheric conditions of the planet as a whole, we personally find it impossible to think that the realm of high altitude is totally devoid of life. There are papers out there tracing back to the era of the cold war suggesting that the maximum height of the planetary biosphere might in fact reach far beyond conventional height, with some evidences suggesting spore presence at mesosphere (~80km).

In order to have at least modestly reliable results from our experiment however, we need to design a device that can remain sterile to and from the stratosphere that will function despite heavy shaking, blistering cold, and falling. So far we’ve been making good headway into design and building of the device (Oliver is practically a McGuyver, with PhD in molecular biology) but it’s been a whole lot tougher than simply throwing together balloons, parachute and a camera that most of these projects tend to do. I’ve accumulated some interesting resources and research results during the course of the project, and will be uploading it to the net soon so that other people can follow in our footsteps and do their own high altitude sampling as well. Maybe it would be possible to grow this into an international program of sorts, considering the nature of the kind of organisms that might be found in the stratospheric range (if we find anything at all).

Recently we launched a simple tethered balloon sat to take pictures of Brooklyn from above. The contraption really had nothing to do with the sampler we’ll be launching, but it still gave us a good feel for what the real launch in the future might feel like.

The balloons were attached to a simple digital camera, a 1.99 semi disposable that took really horrible pictures. I’ll try to find a good one or two and post it later.

We launched the balloon on top of the Genspace building. The weather condition was really great, not too much wind at all. The sunlight was beautiful as well.

I’m one of those kids who used to stay up late at night thinking about the space, the high sky where the deep blue voids split over a thin red line of the sun rising, or setting somewhere over the distant part of the planet. Really, to this day the images still have the power to stir my heart, and make me feel like a human being. This is a meager start but who knows, maybe somebody’s already working on a synthetic biology satellite design that might one day take to the skies 😉

Genspace Grand Opening

December 10th was the big day. NYC will never be the same. Let me elaborate: after two years of blood, sweat, and labor (only a few tears), we finally announced the birth of Genspace to the world on December 10th. The preparation leading to the big day way typical of the ragtag crew of Genspace: chaotic, intense, lasting way past most people’s bedtime, but mysteriously it worked out in the end.

Everyone showed up: art students, scientists, writers, and long lost faces from two years ago. Turns out two tables filled to the brim with food, wine and beer weren’t quite enough to accommodate the bio-curious (not to confuse our counterpart in SF crowd in the city. It’s almost funny how we worried that no one would turn up.

The entire laboratory was strewn with Christmas lights. A light box illuminated an algae bioreactor in testing at the space. Screens were set up showing videos of microscopic organisms, and on our desktop in the study a live feed of the strawberry tissue  streamed from $12 USB microscope in the lab. Even our neighbor Chris pulled out all the stops, demonstrating his  ‘animal sense’ contraption for people to try out.

We still have ways to go, however. We need to reach out to the population of the city and show them that science is within reach. We need to work ever harder to break the walls surrounding learning and practice of science, and we need to create ever more ingenious, useful, and beautiful things.

The Genspace grand opening isn’t about the past two years, it’s about the future from here on out. Let’s bring back the romance between the sciences and the public.  I am proud to be a founding member of the first community biotech laboratory in NYC.

Who knows, maybe we really will end up changing the world for the better.

Jaron Lanier and the Fall of Opensource

Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of opensource movement and virtual reality, thinks the opensource movement had been a total failure. He does point out the opensource movement and the web culture are two different things and agrees the latter had been a phenomenal success in demonstrating the capacity of the unknown, average individuals out there to create beautiful, useful, and interesting things.

I don’t agree with everything he said, but I think he has some important points we should pay attention to.

1.Opensource movement is boring. Seriously, sitting down and writing Wikipedia entries (of often questionable accuracy), worrying about how to format texts? Sure, it’s something you and I might do in our spare time, but we are geeks. Opensource is about serving all of humanity, but as it stands opensource just serves the narrow interests of a very small portion of the population: Geeks and nerds. As long as grandma and primary schools kids next door can’t use opensource products/projects/frameworks simply because it’s fun, the whole culture is just another outlet for elitism and fascism most hackers are supposed to hate so much. Ever said something on the lines of ‘I hate being the tech support for the whole family’? That means the people who wrote those programs and services suck, not the users.

2.Major opensource products are built upon nostalgia of the ‘better times’, the golden age of the hackerdom during the 60’s~80’s. Linux, gcc the vast majority of the main opensource projects are built upon, vim vs. emacs war, and etc etc. Linux distros had been making some good strides in this department but we still need to face facts. To anyone who didn’t string together shell scripts when he/she was in high school, major opensource projects and the tools they are based upon look downright archaic. It isn’t because they have bad user interface design (they do). It’s because they really are old and deprecated. I am continuously amazed by how many people tell fresh young minds entering hackerdom to go learn C. Kindergartners don’t start learning English language by starting with Latin. Why is the whole darn culture based on a fast-but-bad programming language designed before many of us were born? Let’s be honest here, most people who recommend C to beginners started with BASIC. When a whole culture based on ideals of innovation and sharing begins to look outdated and conservative next to hulking multi-billion/trillion-dollar corporate entities, they are in trouble.

3.This is a repeat of above statement, but it bears some reiteration. There isn’t enough innovation in the opensource community. Again, large corporate entities that takes three days to ship an empty box innovates a whole lot more than most of the opensource communities out there. Sure, there had been some interesting developments that’s making the world a better place, like Ruby and Python. The same Ruby and Python people praise for finally getting around to implementing great ideas of programming languages like Smalltalk and Lisp. Smalltalk and Lisp was invented back when the idea of a cheap personal computer was the stuff of science fiction. Linux is playing catch up in terms of features and architecture with commercial operating systems and in critical applications UNIX is king (guess how old it is).  Meanwhile Microsoft is making strides with .NET framework and Google/Apple is on the cusp of next era of personal computing. Based on real world progress, opensource community as a whole lack clear vision of what the future should be.

4.There is an inherent elitism within a lot of the opensource communities. Personally I have no issue with elitism on personal level. It’s when such attitude permeates within entire communities that they begin to do real harm. Common sense dictates that any software targeted at Jane Doe should be easy enough for J.D. to use. Not so in a lot of opensource communities. If Jane Doe has hard time using an obscure text editor with more commands than the usual operating system it’s her fault for being so lazy and/or dumb. If a kid who can barely type can’t learn C and work with pointers the kid must be stupid. If it’s too difficult for artists to use computer systems to create beautiful things without pre-packaged software it’s because artsy types aren’t supposed to be good at computers. These problems are being addressed by a new wave of hackers and hacker-minded people but they are still tragically present in many of the present communities, even when they don’t specifically come out and say those things.

There are other interesting traits about opensource and opensource oriented communities Jaron Lanier pointed out as well, like how most of them are structured to shout down any voice of dissent based on fear of isolation, and how there is a culture of complacency among its leading members, but those things apply to almost any large group of people, so I felt no need to single out and discuss them.

I’m an optimist. I think there are movements within the opensource community that are trying to address this problem. I think the prevalence of web platforms, popularity of light weight scripting languages, and web/user interface designs are all in some form a reaction to the perceived stagnation of opensource community. People are increasingly becoming aware of what a stupid idea it is to teach C in middle schools, and how even stupider it is to begin computer education in a middle school instead of much, much earlier. I might go out on a limb and say that some people are beginning to realize that programming as an activity is not difficult at all, and that it is the teachers who don’t know what they are doing, not the students.

Yet I am still worried about the culture of opensource. Opensource as in framework of idea, not of computing. How can we apply the ideas of opensource and innovation to the fields outside computing, like CNC based personal manufacturing, scientific research and DIYbio when it’s running into such problems on what should be the culture’s home ground? Are those open-manufacturers/scientists/biohobbyists/etc about to run into unforeseen trouble inherent in existing idea of opensource itself? Are we already in trouble?

edit: maybe I should say that the woe of current opensource community (as a whole. There are many brilliant people and groups out there, can’t stress that enough) is that they don’t hack as much as smaller groups?

Edit: Aug 28
Some people wrote me some valid (“you don’t seem to understand opensource in the post”), and some vitriolic (“what’s wrong with being a nerd?!” but with lots of swearing in it), rebuttals to this post. I refrained from replying to those responses individually and getting into arguments since I think this post is terrible myself (like how I used opensource and web2.0 interchangeably throughout some of the parts). I must stress that I’m a student of all things Free software and what I say or write here should never be taken as something it isn’t.

I personally like to consider myself as someone with geek tendencies. I love emacs, and I love the idea of emacs. I think GCC is a huge thing that changed the course of humanity as much as development of steam engine changed the face of humanity forever. And yet I think all of those tools are old, based on older ideas and inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the lifestyles of people like you and me, the people who wouldn’t mind staring at a screen for hours on end.

I’ve had a chance to talk to some ex-programmers turned artists at the ITP exhibition last year. There was a particularly interesting exhibit with a type of evolving display system. He did all of the graphic generation within the exhibition by hand, by putting together a library of hand-drawn images. It was rather obvious he could simply do some coding in the Processing language and get it done faster and more efficiently, so I asked him why he bothered with the manual labor… And he told me that he simply doesn’t like to program. I’m not sure how I can portray the eye-opening effect it had on me at the time. The artist was fine with studying algorithms and working them out on paper, using it to generate obviously computational results. He was a very logical guy with mathematical proficiency to spare, certainly more than what I can say about myself. It’s only that he just couldn’t stand the whirring of the computer fans, the monitors, the endless clacking of keyboards and always worrying about battery life of one device or another. And I get a feeling that he is not alone in this. Maybe there are some people who are allergic to certain type of things used universally in building computers. Maybe there are some kids who just can’t handle the physical environment that comes with using a computer as we know it due to some psychological trauma. Such cases aren’t unheard-of in education circles and there can be hundreds of thousands of reasons why someone would shy away from programming activities while possessing logical acuity and vision that would normally lead to the act of programming.
I subscribe to the Alan Kay notion of describing computer-use: every interaction with a computer is an act of programming, but programming activity isn’t exclusive to usage of computer devices. And that’s why I agree with his frequent statement that the computer revolution never really happened. Computer revolution was supposed to be the revolution of the mind-ware. It was supposed to be this awesome tool of abstraction that would elevate (for lack of a better term) all of humanity to a state of freedom through better understanding of subjects that were distant and foreign to them… It was supposed to make science easier, a goal that is near and dear to people like me interested in DIYbiology. Easier not as in being lazy but being accessible, like how calculus was once considered the pinnacle of human knowledge but is now being taught even in some of the worst educational curriculums in the world as something every human being should know regardless of their intellectual rigor.
The original post was how I tried to address the inconsistency between the ideals that I believe should be applied to opensource community and the reality of the tools deployed. It’s called open-source, purists call it Free-software. Despite some differences between the two they really are about openness and freedom, but as long as its users and contributors subscribe to a certain type of lifestyle. Is there any way to change that? Can Free software be so free as to be no longer confined to the silicon and copper frameworks and languages of C and (gasp) Fortran?

I know this is all sounds like a pie-in-the-sky talk right now but I feel it’s a goal worth pursuing for those in the opensource community.

8bit tools of science

According to the founder of Playpower.org, more people in India have TVs at home than tap water. And there are $12 computers everywhere that uses the TVs as monitors, like so many of the personal computers of old.

Now consider that these hardwares based off older 8bit chip designs and the softwares that run on them are more or less in public domain. We are looking at a significant portion of the entire human population just poised on the verge to hackerdom. It’s not just typing education and language training. We could build entirely new framework for education in 3rd world urban area using existing tools of education and science. Imagine being able to design an 8bit program for those machines (some of them can actually do internet) that pulls data from research institutions of all kinds (BLAST, Wolfram Alpha, and etc etc) and scale it down to a form those machines and people using those machines can understand. We already have beta versions of synthetic biology CAD program that undergraduates regularly use for their school assignments and private projects, so it’s not that far away in the future.

Will a child capable of programming computers and pull data on SNP variations to do his/her own genotyping using soon-to-be widely available opensource PCR machines still languish in poverty and despair? I don’t know. I’d sure like to find out though.

First DIYBio rant of the year

I can’t believe I’m uploading the first post of the year in March. Still, better late than never to show people that I’m still alive and kicking. While I haven’t been able to think about personal writing due to deluge of job and school related stuff I’ll try to keep things more organized in the coming months. If half of what I hope comes true this coming year will be the most awesome so far, for myself and for other activities and organizations I believe in.

This post is, like it says in the title, a rant post of what DIYBio ought to be and how I plan to do my part this year. It’s also written on my blackberry which I later copy-pasted into the wordpress… I just hope half a year of writing boring technical stuff didn’t burn out creative writing part of my brain. I’ll be using it a lot from now on.

Year 2009 was series of exciting experiences, with ISFF, DIYBio and iGEM jamboree. I’m trying to pan it out into this year without losing momentum, through activities like synthetic biology crash course for beginners, various internships and private research projects. Hopefully I’ll have more time to write about them in the coming months.

I’ve been thinking a lot on diybio, about what it’s supposed to be & what it needs, and I think I’ve arrived at some sort of conclusion.

DIYBio must inevitably find the way to bridge the gap between the enthusiastic members of the public and tools and devices that makes synthetic biology feasible. While there are many members out there who seem to work toward specific gadgets and other physical tools of biological experiment, I think we still need something more.

DIY or not, biology is a science. If we want to bring hard science to the public with aid of ever cheapening yet sophisticated lab equipments we need to look beyond the hardware.

I’ve written quite a few times about Alan Kay (on this blog and elsewhere), the pioneer of modern computer programming/interface paradigm and his relationship with synthetic biology… There are mountains of information on him and his works that are relevant to the discussion of models in biology and how they might be used to organize information, with emphasis on education as a sort of interface between data and human mind… All of which are beyond the scope of this particular post.

The important point is this. I believe true potential for diybio is to bridge the gap between the complexity of bleeding edge science with the innate human ability to learn and tinker. And the main tool in making it happen is idea, not low cost lab tools (the costs of the lab tools are coming down anyway. Why DIY every single appliance when you can buy a used one that works just as good, oftentimes even better?). While low cost lab implementations are important, the true future lies with the ability to abstract and package/rebuild complexity into something much more manageable.

Some people seem to have difficulty understanding what I’m trying to say from the few times I’ve tried to talk about… I’m talking about reviving and revising the notion of knowledge engineering, something that was supposed to be the corner stone of true computer revolution that never really took off (google and wikipedia are some remnants of the original idea).

Synthetic biology is a good example of what knowledge engineering coupled with physical science might be able to achieve. None of the specific pieces forming what we perceive as synthetic biology are new. They’ve been around for quite a while in one form or another following course of gradual improvement rather than truly new scientific advance.
Synthetic biology at heart is about how dedicated professionals can organize scattered pieces of knowledge into something that can potentially allow ambitious undergraduate students to undertake projects that would have been beyond their ability a decade ago. Never mind the actual success rate of their projects for now. They very fact that those students are able to plan for the future with much broader sphere of possibility is significant enough.
And why stop with undergraduates? Wouldn’t it be possible to have motivated high school students design something that at least works on paper? Wouldn’t it be possible to build a conceptual framework so that those kids can at least discuss possibilities of future projects on back of a napkin without resorting to sci fi?

If diybio is to do what it originally set out to do, we need to look beyond gadgets and tools. We need to think about ideas and how they come together… We need to make biology easier, not just cheaper. This is the mantra that will drive my DIYBio related activities this year.

Alan Kay applied to synthetic biology, and other stuff.

This is something I wrote up a few days ago, probably around four or so in the morning. So take whatever it says with caution.

I know I should be writing about some other things as well, like how the diybio nyc might be amazingly close to getting a real lab space, or how I’m prepping to stop by for this year’s iGEM jamboree. I also have the pictures from this year’s major diybio nyc event, where we set up a stall on the NYC green market and extracted dnas from the natural produces with common household material (with the passers-by of course). Each of those things would probably make for some lengthy and interesting reading, and the list goes on (my life’s actually kind of exciting right now). Yet whenever I find the time to write something down, nada. Nothing. My mind just shuts down and nothing I can commit to paper or the keyboard seems good enough.

Tonight though, aided by my weird bout with insomnia, I’ll just write something down I’ve been meaning to say for a long time.

I’ve been looking into the history of computing and computer languages recently. I’ve always had some level of interest in computers. Not just the spiffy brand-new muscle machines but in what most people would refer to as ‘retrocomputing’ (I once ended up practicing some AIDA because of that. Ugh), which is a story for another time. It’s not that I think old ways of computing were better than what we have now (protected memory FTW). It’s just that it’s much easier to trace the evolution of the concept of computing when you see beyond the immediate commercial products.

Synthetic biology is effectively a pursuit of engineering biological organisms. Biological organisms are based upon somewhat unified information storage and processing system that has quite a bit of parallels to mechanical computerized systems. I’ve been wondering whether it would be possible to predict the future development of synthetic biology by looking at how computer programming languages evolved (because they deal with information processing systems applied to physical counting medium). Maybe it’d be possible to predict some of the pitfalls that are inherent in developing complex programmable information processing system that will apply to the synthetic biology in the future. Maybe we can bring a conceptual framework to the synthetic biology that would have taken decades if left to mature naturally to within mere years.

While I was rummaging through the texts in both real life and the web (with many of the promising links on the web leading to dead-ends and 404s) I ran into a programming paradigm and environment I was only superficially familiar with before. Smalltalk and Squeak, both the brainchild of the computing pioneer Alan Kay.

Here’s an excerpt from Alan Kay’s biography I found on the net (I can’t find the website right now. I swear I’ll edit it in later, when my brain’s actually working!)

“Alan Kay postulated that the ideal computer would function like a living organism; each “cell” would behave in accord with others to accomplish an end goal but would also be able to function autonomously. Cells could also regroup themselves in order to attack another problem or handle another function.”

This is the basic philosophy behind smalltalk/squeak and object oriented computer programming paradigm. It is no coincidence that Alan Kay’s vision of the ideal computer language and computing environment would take to a biological allegory, since he came from molecular biology background.

While I’m reading through the history of different computing paradigms for the purpose of figuring out how it might be applied to synthetic biology, there’s something else I found awesome and perhaps a little heartwarming. Alan Kay throughout his life as a computing pioneer held onto the belief that the ideal computing platform won’t be a platform capable of crunching numbers the fastest. It will be a platform that can be integrated into the educational function of the user through ease of manipulation and control. Ideal computing platform should be hackable because it makes logical sense to do so.

Can we say the same of synthetic biology? Perhaps not. The direct comparison of a complex biological system to computerized circuits can only take us so far. Yet I can’t shake the nagging feeling that synthetic biology might be looking at some very unique opportunities for change precisely because it is different from regular electronic systems, with documents of the early days of computer and programming already here for our perusal.

A good, elegant system that allows programmable extension must be at the same time easy to learn, since one thing must inevitably lead to the other. And there are classes of systems that both run and learn better compared to other systems. This might become something of an issue of how synthetic biology parts/devices/systems are put together in the future as the capacity of the synthetic biologists to handle complex systems increase.

I think it might be able to pursue this idea further. As it stands this is nothing more than an interesting parallel in concept without substantial scientific reasoning.

Which is why I should get myself to learn smalltalk/squeak sometime in the future. Maybe I should knock on the hackerspaces in the city, see if anyone’s willing to mentor me.

Imagine science film festival

Just a quick note before I doze off for tomorrow’s work.

NYC, befitting its status as one of the more interesting places to live in around the world, is the host to this amazing event called the Imagine Science Film Festival. Now I’m nuts for all things science, but I especially love this festival in comparison to other science-y things to see and do around the city (with possible exception of DIYBio-NYC).

I personally believe that arts and sciences go hand in hand and that current division between the sciences and the ‘humanities’ is something of a temporary cultural aberration that we’ll all look back and laugh at. And the kind of works I saw at last year’s Imagine Science Film Festival events showed me a glimpse of what a future with sciences and humanities intermingled together might look like. It’s not so much as the specifics of the individual films but the overarching theme pervading through the atmosphere of the whole festival itself that caught my attention. Perhaps it’s the passion of the event organizers rubbing off on others watching the films. Perhaps it was just me realizing something I already had inside me through the mirror of projector screens.

If you’re in the NYC area, make sure to check out the webpage for the imagine science films and mark the dates on the calenders (there’s a screening benefit program this September 9th). Last year most of the screenings were free and I get a feeling that it will continue to be that way this year as well. If you’re not in the NYC area, feel free to donate in return for some cool t-shirts 😉 You’ll be supporting a worthy cause.

And here’s the festival trailer for your viewing pleasure.

Synthetic Biology on KQED QUEST- and some comments on the diybio aspect

(((I was trying to embed the videos from the KQED site directly in the post, but apparently copy pasting embed code in HTML panel isn’t good enough for wordpress. I’ve linked to them instead. They are quite good. You should really check them out.)))

Here are two videos on synthetic biology. The first one is a short introduction to synthetic biology produced by the wonderful people at KQED QUEST program, which goes into some level of detail on what synthetic biology is and what we are doing with it at the moment. Certainly worth some of your time if you’re interested in this new exciting field of science.

The first video is the original KQED QUEST video on synthetic biology.

The second video is the extended interview with Drew Endy available off their website… While the field of synthetic biology in the form we now know and love probably began with the efforts of Tom Knight at MIT, Drew Endy is certainly one of the most active and clear thinking proponents of the scientific field of synthetic biology.

Here is the link to the second video, the extended interview with Drew Endy.

If you hadn’t guessed yet, I’m really big on synthetic biology. I think it’s one of the most exciting things happening in the sciences today, not just for biologists but for mathematicians and physicists in that synthetic biology might one day provide a comprehensive toolset for studying the most complex physical system known to humanity so far… That of complex life-like systems.

I also believe that abstraction driven synthetic biology cannot manifest without a reasonably sized community of beta-testers willing and able to use the new parts and devices within original systems of their own creation. Computer languages like python and ruby needed efforts of hundreds of developers working in conjunction with each other for a multiple years to get where they are today. Complete operating system like Linux took longer with even larger base of developers and we still have usability issues. Synthetic biology must deal with systems that are even more complex than most computerized systems, so it’s not unreasonable to think that we’ll be needing an even wider deployment of the technology to the public and active community involvement in order to make it work as engineering capable system.

So I am a little dismayed, along with legions of other people who were initially excited by the promises of synthetic biology in conjunction with diybio community, to find that access to BioBrick parts and iGEM competition is severely limited against any amateur biology group operating outside conventional academic circles.

You see, unlike computer programming, constructing synthetic biology systems require BioBrick parts from the registry of standard biological parts. Right now it is next to impossible for diy-biologist interested in synthetic biology to get his or her hands on the BioBrick components through proper channels. The DIYBio-NYC group alone had quite a few number of people lose interest because of uncertain future aspects of being allowed access to the BioBrick parts and talking to people from around the world on that issue I’m beginning to think that there are a lot more of such cases. So far the major reasoning behind the restricted access seem to be the safety issue, but considering that the regular chassis used to put together BioBrick parts is based on academic strains of E.Coli that are even more harmless than your average skin cell I can’t see much wisdom in restricting access to the parts on basis of safety.

The bottom line is, the state of synthetic biology and BioBricks foundation at the moment is forcing a lot of people, some of them quite talented, who are enthused about contributing to a new emerging field of science to back down in either confusion or disappointment. Considering that the very structure of synthetic biology itself demands some level of public deployment to stress-test and demonstrate the effectiveness and stability of its individual parts and devices (with creation of those individual parts and devices left to the highly trained professionals at up scale laboratories) this is highly unusual state of affair that is not motivated by science behind synthetic biology. I might even go as far as to say it has the distinct aftertaste of political calculations of public relations kind.

The field of synthetic biology will never achieve its true potential unless the BioBricks foundation and iGEM administrators come up with some way for people outside traditional academy settings to participate in real design and construction of synthetic biology systems.

Here’s a little bonus, the QUEST show producer’s notes on ‘Decoding Synthetic Biology.’