September 13, 2011

Open-source hardware, a model for biology?

The purpose of this post is to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas and design principles between hardware customizers and synthetic biologists, in addition to exploring the nature of open-source innovation. What can open-source hardware do to inform the design of synthetic biological systems, and vice versa? And what are the latest trends in do-it-yourself science and technology?

A movement is afoot to make custom electronics hardware. While this has been a hobby almost as long as there have been electronics, the focus has always been on hacking proprietary designs. Now the open-source hardware movement is an attempt to build hardware according to the same principles governing open-source software. Open-source software is of course where users all contribute their own modification designs to the general community, with a systems design that allows for this to be done at low cost. The official working definition of open-source hardware is "hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design".

The Maker Faire in New York is having a spinoff conference called the Open Hardware Summit. To encourage interest in this area, the Makezine Blog has provided a few examples of open hardware designs. There seem to be two versions of the concept. One is an open model through which design are provided online (e.g. the motor-driven screw block example) and people can assemble the actual device or its variants on their own. The other is API-driven, such as the Roomba, which allows people to customize a basic hardware design using custom components and software libraries.

There is a parallel open-source movement in biology. While most of the work to date has focused on microbial bioengineering, many of the lessons learned have broader application. One goal of this movement is to establish a catalog of standard biological parts (called " biobricks"). This catalog is organized by types of parts, whichinclude DNA, translational units, and terminators.

A parts registry also has broader application in the systems biology community. For example, the engineering of animal cells requires characterization and analysis of transcriptional networks and signaling pathways. Yet even with a good parts catalog, open-source modification of biological systems can be hard. The tinkerer is essentially taking something that has evolved through natural processes and makes customized modifications with relatively little control over the outcome.

Finally, let us recall the working definition of open-source hardware: "hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design". There are two comparisons that can be made between hacking inorganic and organic systems:

1) biological modification must take into account natural diversity between the individual unit being modified. In an inorganic system (e.g. a toaster), the hardware template is most likely to be identical from one unit to another. In biological systems, there is much (undocumented) diversity between units. Some of this is structural (e.g. DNA or protein mutations), but much of it is also functional (e.g. biological rhythms or stochastic gene expression).

2) the catalog of standard parts approach might not fully enable innovation in either organic or inorganic systems. This is an interesting thought that I have not fully explored, but may be due to parallels between human innovation and the complex nature of biological systems. For inorganic systems, the innovation of modification often exceeds what is written in the instruction manual. This process of cultural adaptation may have strong parallels with the adaptable substrate of a biological system.

I am interested in people's thoughts on this topic, particularly if there are any more parallels between organic and inorganic systems that I have not discussed here.

1 comment:

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