Hacking life

Why is molecular biology so different from engineering?

Engineers build things using well-understood systems, the details of which, while sometimes complex, were originally specified and documented by other engineers. Molecular biologists, on the other hand, are uncovering the bizarre workings of an almost impossibly remote alien world hidden from all but the most obsessively persistent observers.

By great contrast, a field like software can be up-ended with lightning speed by a clever teenager, because the tools are smaller, cheaper, easier to wield, and also because people need only download and run software to understand its value. The next Netscape, Napster, or Google might be right around the corner.

Biologists, on the other hand, devote endless hours to coaxing new information out of living cells. It can take years of lab-bound tedium to reach a result which may, after all, turn out to be inconclusive. Results, once published, may take years to verify. Consequently, biologists tend to move in conservative, reputation-oriented packs. When biologists publish, they know it is critical to publish in a journal that has “impact factor”, since findings can be so easily questioned. Reputation is the currency that can validate their findings. In many ways, biologists function more like the members of a medieval guild than the participants of a fast-moving twenty-first century knowledge industry.

Nevertheless, biology is changing. It must, and it will, move from its current mode into more of an engineering mode. Industrial-scale genomics and systems biology are the beginning of this transition. What is coming? Here’s a short list:

  • cheap, fast experiments
  • easy, accurate simulation
  • easily verified results
  • an information-sharing “hacker” culture

All these things are common in the engineering world. Of this list, the last item is the most important and will certainly be the slowest to change. In biology, the toys have been too expensive, the results too dear to be profligate in giving them away. If you devote your entire career to a single protein, for example, how likely are you to be generous with what you find? So biology culture has moved slowly on the backs of laboring grad students. One of the great turning points in bio-engineering came when Craig Venter ushered in the era of industrial genomics. Up to that point, the cost of decoding a genome was dominated by human labor. The attitude was essentially: “What’s the rush? There’ll always be more grad students to finish this in another decade or so.” High-speed machines changed that equation forever.

I have been very happy to read dispatches from the front lines of biological research that indicate the age of the bio-hacker is upon us. The notion of a “bio-hacker” can sound alarming, I admit, but things are going to start happening extremely fast. Here are some items: Howard Salis’ synthetic biology blog has a good post on automated molecular biology that touches on these themes. Bio-IT World has a couple of exciting articles, one on a breakthrough genome sequencing product and another on whole-genome synthesis entitled “Pimp My Genome”.

Pimp my genome. Heh.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Update. Over at Nodalpoint, the bioinformatics weblog, Pedro Beltrao just made a very similar point: “Open source software comes to mind as one of the best examples of what you can achieve by getting interested people together in a virtual space. Why can’t we do the same for scientific research?”

3 thoughts on “Hacking life”

  1. You hear all the problems people have with hackers making new worms. Someday, a hacker-made worm might mean something very different.

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