Biohackers in space, but not on YouTube

Plus, the UK's GMF debate and why the right wing needs Phil101.

Hi it’s Alex. Thanks for reading! Make sure to forward and share this email with anyone who might enjoy it! 💜

Two weeks ago, Neo.Life published a story I have been trying to get out for nearly two years, about a new generation of analog astronauts. The article focused on some amazing colleagues I’ve had the pleasure to know through my work on the annual Global Community Bio Summit, and I feel really excited about the many creative approaches they are taking toward the kaleidoscope of questions related to humans becoming an interplanetary species.

To be sure, there is a lot of great stuff in the piece (and even more that didn’t make it in). But the real surprise I encountered in reporting this story was the lack of investment NASA has put into synthetic biology research with space applications. Truly, this was bewildering for me to hear. During my conversations with Lynn Rothschild, I was worried that the NASA press officer listening into the call was going to cut her off. Her annoyance with the status quo was palpable. As she said, “NASA’s goal is not synthetic biology. NASA’s goal is, ‘Let’s get the boots on the moon.’”

Hopefully that’s slowly changing. This week, I was excited to learn about a fun CRISPR experiment on-board the ISS, so although it’s slow going, perhaps there’s hope that NASA will embrace multidisciplinary research.

Using biotech tools that are emerging now will be absolutely crucial to off-Earth living and fixing the climate, and if public research dollars aren’t increased, the field will be pushed forward by private enterprise. This should surprise no one who reads this newsletter, but despite NASA looking the other way, after the recent explosive multi-billion dollar valuations of Zymergen and Ginkgo Bioworks, at least the wolves of Wall Street are paying attention.

Here’s the latest.


The new Alzheimer’s drug is breaking the FDA—hooray?

There seems to be a broad consensus within medical and medical ethics circles that the FDA’s approval of Biogen’s new drug, Aduhelm, was a huge mistake. The trials showed basically no efficacy, the drug might actually be dangerous, and the agency’s decision has prompted prominent advisors to resign their positions at FDA. So it’s a big shit show over there.

But is that terrible?

The FDA faces criticism from all sides, because despite good intentions, the agency doesn’t seem to be up to the task of regulating in the 21st century—considering the perfect storm of confusing health care legislation, webs of insurance and reimbursement rules, and pricing and safety concerns associated with the Aduhelm decision, it’s a great example of the FDA’s general state of chaos.

A recent Washington Post column details the many deeper issues at FDA (revolving door corruption, user fees, and backwards priorities) and suggests a few ways to “revive and restore trust.” But it stops short of pointing out the thing that would actually fix the many problems before us: We must break the FDA off from HHS and the yoke of partisan bullshit in Congress and build a fresh, new, independent agency.


Regulating the Cyberpunk Reality: Private Body Modification and the Dangers of ‘Body Hacking’, Journal of Business & Technology Law
Ethical challenges for iGEM teams, iGEM blog

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Biohacking is still being deplatformed

YouTube recently removed a bunch of videos about DIY vaccines, many of which were recorded early in the pandemic. I have offered opinions about why DIY vaccines raise ethical challenges for biohackers and the larger Community Bio movement. However, I do not condone censorship, and the latest move from YouTube wasn’t even a video made by biohackers (although removing those is egregious, too)—it was reporting by Reason magazine which YouTube alleges “promoted medical misinformation.”

This is controversial and problematic science. But it is science. It’s research and performance art and political protest all wrapped in together, and it’s not ok to censor it, when what we should be doing is having conversations about how to make it better, safer, more transparent, and so on. Further, it is absolutely outrageous to censor journalism reporting on it.

From Reason’s Zach Weissmueller:

As it turned out, DIY vaccines haven't played a major role in conquering the pandemic, in large part because of the remarkable speed with which the official vaccines were developed and deployed. But the FDA's emergency authorization for those vaccines doesn't suddenly transform my video into "medical misinformation." It remains a snapshot of an early longshot effort to prepare for a frightening and uncertain pandemic, and it continues to raise questions about whether the future of science needs to be as centrally managed as it has been for the past century. It's a factual report, not misinformation.

You can watch the video here. 📺


GMOs vs GMFs: Spot the difference

In the EU, all genetically modified organisms face the same enormous hurdles. The legal process, which lumps together modification with gene editing and older, less precise techniques, is burdensome and confusing. The post-Brexit UK would like to move past these decades-old laws and set up a new system for food that is genetically edited using tools like CRISPR.

The issue on the table is whether foods that have been modified using genetic editing should be regulated in the same tired process as all other GMOs. Editing often yields the same results as traditional breeding but is more efficient and can create crops to adapt to the rapidly changing climate. It can even make foods healthier.

DEFRA, the regulator in charge, called for a “consultation” which is when lawmakers try to get educated about all sides of an issue by a range of stakeholders and the public before they make a decision. (I know, it’s so wild!) However, there is significant pushback, including from anti-GMO activists and supermarket chains, which say gene edited products would evade the organic and non-GMO labels, leaving consumers confused.

The decision will be a tricky one for the government, which was meant to announce a decision last month. We’re still waiting.


Tucker Carlson: Take a philosophy class

Please laugh at these rants by the four horsemen of the right wing. Tucker Carlson, a radio host, Twitter trolls, and Breitbart.com all manage to misunderstand a philosophical thought experiment about decreasing our dependence on meat so extremely that explosive giggling is the only appropriate response.

Ironically, it seems like the only way to combat this is to have Matthew Liao teach them undergraduate philosophy. Or, you know, help Americans develop critical thinking skills.


Extra Credit:

“Securing Good Futures for Biotech with Tessa Alexanian,” Frontiers with Lea Degen
DARPA implants for better sleep, Neo.Life
A new research effort aims to vet digital health data from wearables, Stat
Kate Darling knows the secret to peaceful coexistence with robots, Inside Hook
The CDC is broken, too. New York Times Magazine
Can a universal coronavirus vaccine prevent the next pandemic? Scientific American
A stripper makes the case for the full decriminalization of sex work, Sex Work Socialism
What brain implants could do to family life, New Scientist
The U.S. had to rethink its definition of parenthood for children born abroad using egg and sperm donors or surrogates, The Atlantic
How will the law handle emerging neuroprostheses? The Neuroethics Blog
The secret IRS files of the 1%, ProPublica
In Tribute: Kevin Michael Gallagher, Asher Wolf on Medium