How Open Source Biology May Rock Your World

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 03, 2008

Here at OStatic, we're always interested in efforts to apply open source principles to efforts outside the software realm. Drew Endy, an open source biologist currently working at Stanford, is a good example of why. Along with several researchers at MIT, Endy is working on synthetic biology and the engineering of standardized biological components and devices, known as BioBricks. Endy is also founder of the BioBricks Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by engineers and scientists from MIT, Harvard, and U.C. San Francisco, focused on open source biotechnology. Just as open source software is often shared in online repositories, the BioBricks Foundation has a registry online for open source biological parts. Here's more on how these efforts may change the world, following open source principles.

When Esquire magazine recently rounded up its 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century, Drew Endy made the list. Here is how Esquire describes his efforts:

"Synthetic biology holds the promise to create life as it could be--grains that cure disease, gourds that grow into shelter, fuel made for pennies from yeast. But right now it's a field that is as unregulated as it is young. Endy, an assistant professor at Stanford, is laying the essential foundation through an open-source collection of BioBrick parts--strands of DNA in standardized shapes that can snap together like Legos--and his upcoming "Parts Fab," a nonprofit institute that will be one half BioBrick factory, one half open-source library."

The BioBricks Foundation has a FAQ, and offers up this definition for what BioBricks are:

"A BioBrick is a standard biological part that meets the technical and legal standards set forth by the BioBricks Foundation (BBF). Each distinct BioBrick  standard biological part is a nucleic acid-encoded molecular biological function (e.g., turn on/off gene expression), along with the associated information defining and describing the part."

Endy is well-known for his opposition to ivory tower-based, limited ownership of and closed access to genetic information. I was intrigued by Esquire's citation of four possible creations that Endy's and the BioBricks Foundation's work may lead to:

  • Mine-Detecting Shrubs--These are plants that detect the TNT in land mines. Sprinkle the seeds over a minefield and the plants will grow red.
  • Carbon-Suquestering Trees--According to Esquire: "Trees naturally sequester carbon dioxide in their trunks and leaves. But by instructing their cells to convert the CO2 into solid carbon-based compounds that would grow like an orange and fall off, we could greatly increase their efficiency."
  • Gourd Houses--This effort focuses on writing DNA that controls cells' spatial patterns, so that scientists could engineer gourds that would grow into unique  furniture or full-blown houses.
  • Luminescent Grass--"By inserting the enzyme that causes fireflies to light up into grass-seed cells, biologists could create custom glow-in-the-dark lawns," says Esquire.

That's what I need, glow-in-the-dark grass. Seriously, though, sharing biological parts, software related to biotech efforts, and community-driven invention all show promise because we've seen similar open source principles help software flourish. Perhaps it could contribute answers to global warming or lead to alternative fuel sources. At the same time, though, sharing the components of life--especially at the DNA level--is fundamentally different from sharing software components.

It would behoove the BioBricks Foundation to focus strongly on security as it moves forward, and to consider not sharing potentially destructive components or information. Security is often cited as an Achilles heel for open source software, and, promising as this emerging field is, it could be even more of a concern for open source biology.