Open Source Biology

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History of the concept and movement:

"The expression "open-source biology" was coined in the late 1990s by Drew Endy of Berkeley's nonprofit Molecular Sciences Institute, an independent research facility. At the time, debate was raging over attempts to patent arbitrary DNA sequences -- barely discoveries, and certainly not innovations. Endy saw how things were playing out: Rather than contribute to the burgeoning body of genetic knowledge, companies doing basic research were restricting access to crucial parts of the human genome thought to contain genes implicated in a host of diseases. He responded by creating a "BioLinux" Web page. "Since we ourselves depend on the information encoded in genetic material," he explains, "we should work together to share genetic information."

Endy is an engineer by training, and his research had nothing to do with intellectual property theory, but MSI is the kind of place where people are encouraged to think big. Shortly after launching the institute in 1996, renowned geneticist Sydney Brenner had challenged his crew to identify the key sticking points to scientific progress, and come up with ideas to circumvent them. Brenner -- who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for medicine -- was asking them, in essence, to help him shape the future of science. It was a galvanizing charge.

At the time, Endy was living in the hills above the Claremont Hotel with fellow institute scientist Robert Carlson and administrator Lauren Ha in a house of concrete and glass that Carlson dubbed "the palace." The three would stay up late and exchange ideas while taking in the city lights below. "We did nothing but eat, sleep, and talk institute," Ha recalls. "None of us really had lives outside of work."

When the three presented the idea of open-source biology to senior institute scientist Roger Brent, he took to it wholeheartedly. The group began spreading the gospel. The proprietary system, Carlson and Brent argued in a letter seeking funds from the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, was bogging down science and restricting competition. "We think it would be a shame if, in 2009, most of the wheat in this country was dependent on an operating system of the quality and stability of Windows 95," the pair wrote.

They also made a plea on behalf of public safety; there's no way any federal law can ensure that someone doesn't create an organism that, as Brent puts it, "liquefies Cincinnati." Rather than trying to keep secret, for example, the genome of a potential bioterror agent, the institute crew concluded that it's better to empower as many people as possible to develop countermeasures such as new drugs and vaccines. "Consider that the only effective counterterrorism measures on September 11, 2001 were made by the passengers of Flight 93," Brent says.

Carlson, Endy, and Brent all agree that the best way to keep tabs on the potential dangers brewing in labs was to share information. "The only way the shit doesn't hit the fan is if everybody engineering biology does so in the open," Endy says. "We're co-opting the idea from open-source software that 'many eyes lead to few bugs.' In other words, I don't trust you not to make any mistakes the next time you program a piece of DNA. You shouldn't trust me." (


How Open Biology differs from Open Source Biology

Rob Carlson believes the concept of Open Source Biology or Open Source Biotechnology has no real meaning [1]:

"the analogy between software and biology just doesn't go far enough. Biology isn't software, and DNA isn't code. As I study the historical development of railroads, electricity, aviation, computer hardware, computer software, and of the availability of computation itself (distributed, to desktop, and back to distributed; or ARPANet to Microsoft Office to Google Apps), I am still trying to sort out what lessons can be applied to biological technologies. I have only limited conclusions about how any such lessons will help us plan for the future of biology.

When I first heard Drew Endy utter the phrase "Open Source Biology", it was within the broader context of living in Berkeley, trying to understand the future of biology as technology, and working in an environment (the then embryonic Molecular Sciences Institute) that encouraged thinking anything was possible. It was also within the context of Microsoft’s domination of the OS market, the general technology boom in the San Francisco Bay area, the skyrocketing cost of drug development coupled to a stagnation of investment return on those dollars, and the obvious gap in our capabilities in designing and building biological systems. OSB seemed the right strategy to get to where I thought we ought to be in the future, which is to create the ability to tinker effectively, perhaps someday even to engineer biology, and to employ biology as technology for solving some of the many problems humans face, and that humans have created.

As in 2000, I remain today most interested in maintaining, and enhancing, the ability to innovate. In particular, I feel that safe and secure innovation is likely to be best achieved through distributed research and through distributed biological manufacturing. By "Open Biology" I mean access to the tools and skills necessary to participate in that innovation and distributed economy.

"Open source biology" and "open source biotechnology" are catchy phrases, but they have little if any content for the moment. As various non-profits get up and running (e.g., CAMBIA and the BioBrick Foundation), some of the vagaries will be defined, and at least we will have some structure to talk about and test in the real world. When there is a real license a la the GPL, or the Lesser License, and when it is finally tested in court we will have some sense of how this will all work out.

I am by no means saying work should stop on OSB, or on figuring out the licenses, just that I don't understand how it fits into helping innovation at the moment. A great deal of the innovation we need to see will not come from academia or existing corporations, but from people noodling around in their garages or in start-ups yet to be founded. These are the customers for Biobricks, these are the people who want the ability to build biological systems without needing an NIH grant." (

In 2000, Rob Carlson offered this explanation about On the parallels and contrasts (anti-parallels?) between the open-source software movement and open-source biology.

More Information

  1. Open Biology
  2. Open Source Biotechnology
  3. Intentional Biology


  • Jefferson, R. (2006), Science as Social Enterprise: The CAMBIA BiOS Initiative, in Innovations: technology, governance, globalization, vol. 1:4: 13-44. Full text.