A glowing trend

Glowing plants disrupt the GMO narrative.

GlowingPlantProjectEditor’s note: this is an excerpt from the latest edition of BioCoder; it is republished here with permission. Get your free copy of BioCoder Fall 2014 here.

Unlike many of his generational peers, Glowing Plant chief scientific officer Kyle Taylor was never put off by genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. On the contrary: Kansas-born and bred, cutting-edge agriculture was as natural to him as the torrid summers and frigid winters of the southern plains.

“GMO corn first hit the market while I was still in high school,” says Taylor, “and I have to admit I was fascinated by it. It was Roundup resistant, meaning that it you could spray it with the most commonly used herbicide in commercial agriculture and it would remain unaffected. I found that really profound, a breakthrough.” Read more…

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Avoiding the tragedy of the anticommons

We're at the start of a revolution in biology, and it's time for a biological commons.


Editor’s note: this post originally appeared in BioCoder Fall 2014; it is published here with permission. Download a free copy of the new issue here.

A few months ago, I singled out an article in BioCoder about the appearance of open source biology. In his white paper for the Bio-Commons, Rüdiger Trojok writes about a significantly more ambitious vision for open biology: a bio-commons that holds biological intellectual property in trust for the good of all. He also articulates the tragedy of the anticommons, the nightmarish opposite of a bio-commons in which progress is difficult or impossible because “ambiguous and competing intellectual property claims…deter sharing and weaken investment incentives.” Each individual piece of intellectual property is carefully groomed and preserved, but it’s impossible to combine the elements; it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, in which every piece is locked in a separate safe.

We’ve certainly seen the anticommons in computing. Patent trolls are a significant disincentive to innovation; regardless of how weak the patent claim may be, most start-ups just don’t have the money to defend. Could biotechnology head in this direction, too? In the U.S., the Supreme Court has ruled that human genes cannot be patented. But that ruling doesn’t apply to genes from other organisms, and arguably doesn’t apply to modifications of human genes. (I don’t know the status of genetic patents in other countries.) The patentability of biological “inventions” has the potential to make it more difficult to do cutting-edge research in areas like synthetic biology and pharmaceuticals (Trojok points specifically to antibiotics, where research is particularly stagnant). Read more…

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BioCoder strikes again

New issue: bioreactors and food production, modeling a worm's brain on a computer and letting it drive a robot, and more.

BioCoderCover_Page_01The fifth issue of BioCoder is here! We’ve made it into our second year: this revolution is in full swing.

Rather than talk about how great this issue is (though it is great), I’d like to ask a couple of questions. Post your answers in the comments; we won’t necessarily reply, but we will will read them and take them into account.

  • We are always interested in new content, and we’ll take a look at almost anything you send to BioCoder@oreilly.com. In particular, we’d like to get more content from the many biohacker labs, incubators, etc. We know there’s a lot of amazing experimentation out there. But we don’t know what it is; we only see the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What’s the best way to find out what’s going on?
  • While we’ve started BioCoder as a quarterly newsletter, that’s a format that already feels a bit stodgy. Would you be better served if BioCoder went web-native? Rather than publishing eight or 10 articles every three months, we’d publish three or four articles a month online. Would that be more useful? Or do you like things the way they are?

And yes, we do have a great issue, with articles about a low-cost MiniPCR, bioreactors and food production, and what happens when you model a worm’s brain on a computer and let it drive a robot. Plus, an interview with Kyle Taylor of the glowing plant project, the next installment in a series on lab safety, and much more. Read more…


Intoxicating machines

The revolutionary thing about desktop machines is that they'll make experimentation easier.


Cropped screenshot of Carvey. Source: the Carvey Kickstarter campaign.

“Mr. Frankel, who started this program, began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about,” [Richard] Feynman later explained. “The trouble with computers is you play with them.”
— George Dyson, describing the beginning of the Manhattan Project’s computing effort in Turing’s Cathedral.

I’ve been reading George Dyson’s terrific history of the early development of the digital computer, and the quote above struck me. Even when they were little more than room-sized adding machines that had to be painstakingly programmed with punchcards, computers offered an intoxicating way to experiment. Most programmers can probably remember their first few scripts and the thrilling feeling of performing millions of operations in seconds. Computers let us take some abstracted human process and repeat it quickly, at almost no cost, with easy modification along the way. Read more…

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Open data for open lands

Recreation.gov should be a platform, not a silo.

President Obama’s well-publicized national open data policy (pdf) makes it clear that government data is a valuable public resource for which the government should be making efforts to maximize access and use. This policy was based on lessons from previous government open data success stories, such as weather data and GPS, which form the basis for countless commercial services that we take for granted today and that deliver enormous value to society. (You can see an impressive list of companies reliant on open government data via GovLab’s Open Data 500 project.)

Based on this open data policy, I’ve been encouraging entrepreneurs to invest their time and ingenuity to explore entrepreneurial opportunities based on government data. I’ve even invested (through O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures) in one such start-up, Hipcamp, which provides user-friendly interfaces to making reservations at national and state parks.

A better system is sorely needed. The current reservation system is clunky and difficult to use. Hipcamp changes all that, making it a breeze to reserve camping spots. Read more…


Use data or be data

Trina Chiasson argues that data has arrived at the same threshold as coding: code or be coded; learn to use data or be data.


Trina Chiasson

Arguments from all sides have surrounded the question of whether or not everyone should learn to code. Trina Chiasson, co-founder and CEO of Infoactive, says learning to code changed her life for the better. “These days I don’t spend a lot of time writing code,” she says, “but it’s incredibly helpful for me to be able to communicate with our engineers and communicate with other people in the industry.”

Though helpful for her personally, she admits that it takes quite a lot of time and commitment to learn to code to any level of proficiency, and that it might not be the best use of time for everyone. What should people commit time to learn? How to use data. Read more…