Well, not quite, although a very cheap version may be just around the corner. In this month’s edition of Wired (September 2011), one article reports that it is now possible to build your own DNA research lab for just “a few hundred bucks.” The technology promises consumers the ability to turn “small samples of DNA into quantities large enough to analyze.” The advantages to such technology are obvious; imagine having the capability of examining and identifying DNA in your own garage or basement. Indeed, DIYbio (http://diybio.org/) is “dedicated to creating pop-up labs and doing biology outside the traditional environments of universities and industry.” Currently there are DIYbioer groups all over the world, especially in the U.S.
In the past, the chief obstacle was affordability; the technology was simply far too expensive for the average amateur on a shoe-string budget. The situation is changing, however. Wired reports that “Behind the scenes, engineers and science enthusiasts are teaming up to mod tools and technologies and sell their inventions – or simply share tips on how to build them – to anyone interested.” For example, PCR (polymerase chain reactions) kits, described as a “copy machine for DNA,” are attracting lots of attention. According to DIYbio, for under $600, you can purchase a PCR to diagnose diseases or explore your own genome.
As with any technology, DIY DNA analysis is a mixed bag. Professional PCR machines range from $6,000 to $17,000. With a small investment, individuals interested in the technology can bypass the big corporations and achieve some of the same results. Three years ago, high school students used DNA testing in the classroom and discovered that “sushi restaurants and supermarkets were mislabeling their fish” (an event known as “Sushigate,” Wired).
Then again, there is always the dark side to technology. Suppose it becomes viable to detect one’s own genetic defects with the technology? Or, what if it’s possible to discover someone else’s genetic defects? Needless to say, the technology raises a couple of ethical questions:
*what should a person do with knowledge of a future genetic disease, especially if there is a gap between diagnosis and treatment, or if there is no treatment in the foreseeable future?
*then there is the question of whether a person has a moral obligation to inform others of genetic defects, such as one’s potential spouse.
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect to pop-up labs is the lack of regulation or ethical guidelines. Also, what else can be done with the technology, and who is going to oversee the research and monitor the results?
As humans, we have this unfortunate tendency to be self-centered, to ignore our finiteness, to press forward without caution, to abuse technology to gain greater power, and to proceed without moral guidelines. We do well to heed the frequently quoted warning of Hans Jonas, “Modern technology has introduced actions of such novel scale, objects, and consequences that the framework of former ethics can no longer contain them.” Where then is the ethical framework to restrict the misuse of this technology?