Picture your basement or garage. Picture your high school science lab. Now merge the two scenarios, but without the image of your teacher leaning over and explaining how to use a Bunsen burner. According to an article published last month by the Associated Press, people around the country are conducting their own amateur genetic research in an effort to better understand the field and come up with ways to bring the science community closer to finding cures. In Massachusetts, a group of amateur researchers is collaborating in a community lab, complete with a freezer bought from Craigslist, that will keep bacteria alive. Other individuals are purchasing lab equipment to set up in their kitchens or garages.

Tinkering in the science and engineering fields is not unknown — as the article pointed out, Apple and Google both began in a garage. Even though many of these amateurs have undergraduate biology degrees, most don’t have the qualifications required to work in actual research labs.
The thought that anyone with enough curiosity could potentially cure Parkinson’s or find a vaccination for juvenile diabetes is an encouraging one. Such widespread research will allow more people to find science accessible and allow people without monetary constraints to do research for the sake of research.

But critics are afraid that the implications of an experiment gone wrong could result in the spread of disease or other biohazards. Before the stem cell ballot initiative allowing Michigan scientists to derive their own embryonic stem cell lines passed in November, critics of the proposal claimed the ballot language was too ambiguous and did not provide enough regulations. They were right to raise the issue: part of the initiative says no state laws can restrict stem cell research and the resulting therapies.

Even though critics have a valid concern, it’s not legitimate enough to shut down these amateur geneticist labs. Genetic engineering requires a lot of background knowledge just to know where to begin, and I think it’s safe to assume that anyone interested in setting up a garage laboratory would be interested enough to take the time to understand what they are doing. There’s also the matter of purchasing equipment and understanding how to use it. While theoretically anyone could give it a try, the thicker the amateur’s wallet, the easier it is.

Will amateur experimentation result in a cure for cancer? Who knows? But the more people there are thinking about the problem and looking at what is required to come up with a solution, the better. And maybe it will get more people interested in science and technology — people who might otherwise assume they wouldn’t have the time. Maybe someone will see something that piques the interest of someone else, who can then consult someone else and voilà: a new community fostering scientific discovery.

Emily Barton is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at embarton@umich.edu.

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