The Free DNA Declaration

We want the Biotech Revolution. Greater than the Information Revolution. A Golden Age heralded by a global commons of DNA technologies, cultivated for the shared benefit of all human people.

The DNA base pair will join the atom, the bit and the joule in the pantheon of elementary units from which new things are made. But DNA is not like the others. Everything we eat, everyone we love, sickness and health, the entire living world is written in DNA, which therefore belongs in the public domain.

The current direction of DNA research follows the familiar priorities of power and money. The people, who alone have the right to oversee the wise application of the new genetics, are not empowered to do so. To do their job, they need open access to education, publications, protocols, DNA sequences, raw data and results. Scientists are people too. Don’t we need these things?

We want to solve the big problems, but we are divided into small labs. We want to share ideas, but we are pushed to protect our priority. We want to work together, but funders reward ego and first authorship. We want to reach out to the transdisciplinary world and all the beautiful brilliant people who live there, but we’re trapped by institutional walls.

In summary, the current state of our field is inefficient, immoral and boring. Therefore we ask all bioengineers, genetic engineers, synthetic biologists, interested people and allies to join our call to

  • fund historic mega-projects,
  • bypass academic hierarchies,
  • embrace radical diversity,
  • institute complete transparency,
  • end for-profit publishing and
  • abandon the patent system.

We know the movement to openness won’t be easy or cheap. The short term costs will be forgotten in the overall gains in innovation and the rebalancing of outputs toward the public interest. The new DNA designers will be free to operate, loosely joined, with clean communications through open data formats. Let’s build the DNA commons together.


Fund historic mega-projects

We call for mega-projects so ambitious that they require new ways of organizing people. These projects must design, create and characterize life at all scales, then make their insights free to use.

Hardware

  • A comprehensive, DNA-to-Data robotics platform proficient in all standard molecular genetics protocols.
  • The end of hand pipetting and its replacement with inexpensive benchtop robotics.

Software

  • Computer-aided design of antibodies and enzymes of major families with defined kinetic, binding and structural features.
  • Interoperable markup languages for biodesign at every layer: genetic, epigenetic, transcriptional, translational, post-translational and spatial.

Protocols

  • Robust, automated transformation protocols for every order of life.
  • The $100 synthetic bacterial genome. The $100 synthetic yeast genome. The $100 synthetic plant genome. The $100 synthetic vertebrate genome.

Parts

  • The comprehensive synthesis and characterization of every metabolic enzyme from each bacterial genus.
  • Systematic assignment to functional families of all proteins of unknown function in all DNA sequence datasets.

Hosts

  • A simplified, defined, robust, generalist, prototrophic model host characterized at base-pair resolution.
  • The complete evolutionary landscape of a bacterial species to a distance of two mutational events.

It is not a question of if these projects will be completed, but who will benefit most from them. Each milestone sets conventions, standards, norms, operating procedures, habits and legal precedent. Business-led ventures will lock in the proprietary interests of the early investors. Academic work will reflect the scramble for personal priority and IP rights after each publishable unit of progress.

Instead, the DNA mega-projects should be considered a public works infrastructure that transcends both academic and industry values. We need to cut through the established tech transfer ecosystem and re-organize a community of practice that values the public good and is rewarded for it.


Bypass academic hierarchies

The universities cannot nurture a free DNA commons. Scientific careers demand ego, empire-building, and projects that belong to one lab and one principal investigator. Data, in this world, is a precious resource that must be retained until personal priority is established.

The academy can’t reform itself and doesn’t want to. A powerful inertia makes the status quo seem inevitable. Therefore we call for research and education funding that circumvents universities to unlock new cultures, values and expectations.

We are for online courses, peer-to-peer learning and Stack Exchange. We are for micro-credentials, digital certificates and diplomas for practical experience. We are for citizen scientists, patient interest groups and biotech hobbyists. We are for maker spaces, open labs and community bio. We are for salons, coffee houses, public lectures, free universities, and teach-ins.

In these unexplored spaces, people have new habits, show different interests, seek other rewards. Somebody, somewhere, will discover something and share it, following a model better than what exists today. This should happen far away from a normal university, where it will have a chance to grow.


Embrace radical diversity

We are tired of the same old white males who have been given the starring roles. We are bored with the tech bros, CTOs, industry insiders and faculty emeritus with their trained expectations of what is possible and what is valued.

Down with technocratic solutionism. Science is not the only answer to the problems of the world. Biotechnology should serve political activism, social work, economic reform, spiritual practice, artistic expression and other means to promote human flourishing.

We need to be exposed to other ways of thinking. A culture shift won’t happen if the same people stay in the same places. Everyone who is outside society’s circle of STEM must be brought inside, especially at the highest levels of power.

We call for farmers, teachers, artists, plumbers, cashiers, nurses and customer support specialists. People of every kind must be welcomed, invited and persuaded to participate, especially those who have seen the human impact of biotech in the real world.


Institute complete transparency

The era is over when remote institutions, populated with prestigious experts, can feel entitled to the public’s trust. Trust is a local thing and a friendship thing. It happens after many casual conversations, when sharing information becomes easy and natural.

Let’s stop arguing for the public acceptance of GMOs. These arguments miss the point, because they implicitly divide the world into scientists who speak and non-scientists who listen and agree. Instead, let’s do the hard work of putting the public in control of GMOs.

We aspire to fill every community with friends and neighbors who can share informed opinions on the latest DNA designs. We need a million public peer reviewers with access to experts, education and power. We will open research to engaged citizens, who should be given all the facts and trusted to make a fair judgement.

We therefore affirm these rights for everyone who is affected by biotechnology:

  • The right to review all proposed genetically modified products for their technical soundness, environmental impact and public benefit.
  • The right to raw data, including all DNA sequences, experimental protocols and results used to produce a new organism of public relevance.
  • The right to DNA literacy, including the means to education and self-education on emerging DNA technologies at the cutting edge of their development.

Safety concerns will sometimes justify restricting access to new biotechnologies. All other narrow interests in secrecy are superseded by these rights. Biotech business plans that rely on trade secrets or poorly disclosed IP will not work in an open environment dedicated to building trust. Those plans should be discarded.

Know that the public has total control of the decision to regulate, restrict, or defund DNA technologies, including those that are currently profitable. If the field is not reformed to foster trust, a mistrustful public may choose to end it.


End for-profit publishing

It has been obvious for decades that a profiteering oligopoly does not belong at the center of the publicly funded research enterprise. We need new ways to share data, suited to the modern realities of communication.

Individual scientists are locked in to the prestige conveyed by powerful journals, which is an essential commodity for their career development. But scientific communication that makes use of new channels will naturally circumvent the old-fashioned order, which is conservative and slow to adapt. As attention and acclaim flow to the new media, traditional print formats will finally fade away.

The future is open-access journals, preprint servers and micropublications. Let’s experiment with post-publication peer review, citable referee reports and real-time updates. Let’s implement quality-control frameworks that reward and credit referees for their service.

We want to see data in the Creative Commons, source code with OSI-compliant licenses, open source DNA sequences and open formats for everything else. We dream of work that enters the public domain without delay.


Abandon the patent system

Biological reality has no relationship to the legal format of the patent. This contradiction will only become sharper with time.

Early DNA technologies were like machines. Biological tinkerers used very limited tools to produce unique compositions of matter. The results were fixed and stable in practice, because modifications were so slow and expensive.

Today we write DNA like software. Synthetic biologists compose devices using abstract ideas that can be coded many different ways. Systems iterate quickly through versions, re-writes and new feature specs.

The future of DNA design has no ready metaphor, but it will be artfully fluid. We will confront functional sequence spaces that are loosely bounded, polyvalent, context-dependent, underdetermined and evolving. We will churn through new inventions at the speed of free-association, a constant, rolling pace.

In this creative superabundance, the opportunity costs of the patent system are too high. So few patent holders benefit. So many projects promoting health, wealth and happiness are discouraged by a legal landscape that is exhausting and expensive.

We want open-source DNA, which anyone may study, modify, port or market. We want a DNA public license, which makes designs free under the condition that further developments are the same. We want new legal mechanisms that don’t exist yet, but will allow new DNA to enter the commons with full recognition of the law.

We honor and value creators, and recognize their right to own their work. As biotech moves to greater openness and transparency, powerful civic structures will be needed to safeguard generous intentions from exploitation and futility. Every institution with an interest in biotech should convene to develop these structures immediately.

One hundred trillion potential organisms are waiting to be born. Will we litigate the IP status of each one? Will we wait to see how the license negotiations play out? Will we abandon the work because we don’t have the freedom to operate?

No, we won’t. We will find a better way and move forward unencumbered.


Latest Signatures
20 Guy Aidelberg Paris France Sep 18, 2020
19 Andries Peeters Antwerp Belgium Jun 25, 2020
18 Benjamín Mendoza Téllez CDMX México Jan 22, 2020
17 Frank Machin Potsdam-Golm Germany Jan 21, 2020
16 Matias Kaplan San Francisco USA Jan 21, 2020
15 Rob Sarvis Durham United States Jan 21, 2020
14 S James Parsons Jr Philadelphia United States Jan 19, 2020
13 Vincent Libis New York United States Jan 18, 2020
12 Muhammad Farhan Maulana Jakarta Indonesia Jan 18, 2020
11 Devika Sreevallabhan Trivandrum India Jan 18, 2020
10 Isaac Larkin Chicago United States Jan 18, 2020
9 Wesley Wierson Des Moines United States Jan 18, 2020
8 Darshak Bhatt Groningen Netherlands Jan 18, 2020
7 Tim Dobbs Oakland United States Jan 18, 2020
6 Arye Lipman Los Angeles United States Jan 18, 2020
5 Andrey Samokhvalov Moscow Russia Jan 17, 2020
4 Isaac Bean Boulder United States Jan 17, 2020
3 Alexander Shynkarenko Kraków Poland Jan 17, 2020
2 Ariel Lindner Paris France Jan 17, 2020
1 Jake Wintermute Paris France Jan 15, 2020

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