Planting the Seeds for Open Source Biosensing
Biosensors are traditionally, electronic devices that can be integrated into various materials and bodies to indicate and measure trace biological properties in the field, essentially bringing the lab on site and even in home. It basically works like a kind of small scale remote sensing; when a sensitive biological element is placed in contact the test subject, a detector component known as a transducer converts the interaction between chemicals into signal which is fed to a digital reader.1 Originally beginning as a niche scholarly pursuit, bio-sensing is now a rapidly growing commercial and public industry estimated to be worth 22,551.2 million USD by 2020. 2 Current popular applications include medical -for point of care testing, in agriculture – measuring soil and plant bodies for trace infections and contaminations, in sports training – to meet fitness and dietary needs3, environmental- detecting subsurface and water contaminants. 4
Video Link: Biosensors: an Introduction. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KChAkSAizCw
Increasingly, synthetic biology specialists have been creating genetic modifications which effectively render plants themselves as effective biosensors engineered to express indicator genes when specific environmental conditions are met. Biosensing GM roses have successfully been engineered to detect fungal infections in early stages among grapes. Strawberry plants have been engineered to activate a protein which makes them glow green when they receive short wavelength light5. 6 The data from these biological “gene reporters” can then be collected telemetrically, or even just with remote cameras. It is no surprise that this technology is rousing much speculation among technological optimists. People have been developing plants with detector genes for unlikely applications including –of course, the defense sector who’ve been developing plants that can detect landmines. This also has the benefit of opening up arable land to possible agricultural use, whereas large plots of good land particularly in the Middle East are dispossessed and littered with land mines from previous occupations and struggles. Perhaps just as strange, there have been plants developed to detect the levels of radioactivity surrounding nuclear power plants.
Biosensing plants can either be the crop itself, used in conjunction with a crop, or be planted in proximity to a target environment to provide analytical power to on-site operators. Because the electronic biosensors are being made user friendly, are materially minimal and cheap to acquire, they are being championed as a democratizing technology.
Video Link: Reporter Gene Tells All. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvmPc4j25ao
The Need for Open Source Technology
Richard Jefferson, in tracing the history of the biotech industry shows how the monopolization of patent system has occurred since the biotechnology revolution shows how exclusionary practices have blurred the lines between discovery and invention by patenting every genetic change they engineer and denying open access to –not just seeds, but entire platforms for scientific discovery. These kinds of monopolizations over scientific endeavor have historically caused stagnation in research, effectively restricting advancement and discovery for an entire industry of researchers and an entire globe of possible beneficiaries. In other words, it is “now possible to control the tools and platform discoveries themselves, not just the products they created.” 7 Not only are entire operational methods of discovery barred by patent monopolies, the increasingly concentrated agricultural industry has also barred research through strategic divestment strategies with have effectively rendered third party critical analysis of GM products illegal, and therefor inadmissible.
Using examples from other industries, Jefferson shows how patent acquisition behavior can cause financial uncertainties which ultimately have adverse effects on innovation in the tech world. He notes the example of IBM Corporation who made over 500 of its key software patents accessible to open-source licensing. “Within days, Sun Microsystems followed suit releasing an additional 1600 patents… the snowball effect continues as companies realize that their sector makes progress when the standards and toolkits are clear, open, of high quality and consistently available.
Desire for BT products and scientific innovation in the field are currently stuck with no eager customers or researchers, and the increasingly concentrated ownership of the agrotech industry has overseen this outcome – a systematic exclusion democratic innovation. Some Biosensing industries are working to create open source platforms for point-source (or medically, point of care) monitoring and assessment as a way to democratized the GM and medical research sectors. The plan is to “decentralized the problem solving capability” 8 by allowing for a wider audience to contribute to and benefit from a quality research dialogue in biotechnology. GM biosensor plants, if made available under open source commons licensing, has the potential to be a cheap and even cost free analysis instrument for famers at all scales. This is exactly what the folks at the BioSentinel Project are trying to do, create both the crop and the communicative platform for research, including clear toolkits and regulated quality assurance for both public and private users alike. 9
The BioSentinel Project, with their vision of open source access to research, including biosensing electronics and crops has the potential to empower people and communities and serve as an exemplar sector in the struggle to democratize science. With about one in nine people on earth still suffering daily from malnutrition (largely as a byproduct of the practices of the homogenized agro-industrial complex) developing open source research dialogues and deploying adequate tools which eliminate barriers to nutrition in developing nations is more than just a good idea to spark innovation, it’s our moral, technocratic imperative. We must do everything to implement this cheap and widely available technology in order to combat preventable malnutrition around the globe.
2 Thomas, Addie. Biosensor Market Is Expected to Reach USD 22,551.2 Million in 2020. Digital Journal. Press Release. http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/2297309
4 Photo credit: Kenji Yokoyama. http://www.jaist.ac.jp/~yokoyama/yokoyama.html
5 Photo credit: http://www.dezeen.com/2014/01/13/worlds-first-glow-in-the-dark-plant-genetically-engineered/
7 Jefferson, Richard. Science as Social Enterprise. Innovations. Fall 2006. (p 21)
8 Ca (p 38)
9 Ca (p 39)