Here are my very off-hand, grandiose, and perhaps long-winded (shoulda made a movie with a puppy in it) thoughts about a Baltimore community effort in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. This annual competition has been going on since 2004, in an effort to encourage fun and creativity in the field of synthetic biology, while adding to the collection of the iGEM registry of standard parts. This is a growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems. (The contest is not limited to this scope, but submitting a part is generally a requirement of any team effort)
As you may know, this year, for the first time, the contest is open to community labs like ours. This should dramatically reduce the previous barriers to entry involving age and education, and I hope it might be lead to much bigger things in the region. . . but first a little dogma
While biotech has been a nice jobs engine in Maryland, I think it still suffers from a rather gold-plated legacy because of its current association with drug discovery and production, big pharma, university and government research, and big regulation. I will never forget the multi-thousand dollar mop and bucket I saw while looking at an equipment liquidation at the old Nabi plant in Rockville (the mop had to be autoclavable you see) I believe that these kinds of things are the result of a largely grant and government driven industry.
There still also seems to be a rather formal culture as the result of this legacy. I think that this culture is an extension of the formal student-advisor thing that goes on in universities. Lots of lab coats, pretensions, careful conversations, nondisclosure agreements, large institutions. . . still not typically reflective of the open source tech culture, despite all the noise about DIY bio, the BioPunk movement, and Maryland’s biotech revolutionaries of yore.
But Biotech could be so much more. IGEM projects provide a sneak peek into the future These visions include smart drug delivery, microbial fuel cells, environmental remediation, new types of fuels, bacterial cement for Martian bricks, artistic multicolor generation, 3-D printing using genetic expression controlled by light, spiciness sensing, plastic production, dna gardening, and of course, bright blinky lights.
Really, almost anything might be possible. The field really demands participation from a wide variety of types of people, and now might be your chance.
Now, the dogma part is over, but there is more to be said. The current biotech establishment (dissed a little bit above) is full of some of our societies most talented people, typically very underpaid for their level of skill and education. So many seem very overqualified for the job they are doing. This applies to people in supporting positions as well as the scientists. The field attracts excellence; and these people are my heroes. It’s really a testament to their dedication that they shun investment banking or design of the latest messaging app, in favor of doing great science for largely the sake of the science itself.
Admittedly, there is a considerable skill gap between the techie generalist or amateur, and the biotech specialist or scientist. This stuff takes work, and typically does not have the instant gratification (yet) of arduinos and blinky lights. So we could really use more involvement by skilled people. So here’s a special and respectful invitation to these people to lend their talents and help out.
But I hope everyone can consider participating, in some bold crazy audacious project, preferably involving lots of different groups, not only for the thrill of the technology and competition, but also keeping in mind this romantic, perhaps naïve, idea of iGEM being a springboard of all kinds of less traditional biotech in Baltimore. Could this be Baltimore’s big job’s engine? It’s easy to picture. So, (in the great tradition of all great carpetbaggers), I must ask why these things can’t happen here? Why not now?
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