Daniel Grushkin

You Shouldn't Fear Do-It-Yourself Biotech (Slate)

Four years ago, I invited a group of strangers off the Internet to do an experiment no one outside a lab had ever done. An artist, a biologist, a writer, and half a dozen others gathered in my living room to genetically engineer bacteria to glow green. The experiment itself was not novel. The gene we manipulated had been used in labs for 20 years (and eventually won its discoverers the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008). What made the experiment new, and therefore edgy, was the setting—a Brooklyn apartment, rather than an institutional biology lab.

DIY Biotech Labs Undergo Makeovers (Scientific American)

A blowup at a leading biohacker space signals that it may be time to restructure Do-It-Yourself Biology labs

In mid-August, the head of Biocurious, one of country’s premier community biotechnology labs, very publicly quit her post. “I’m seeing lots of political maneuvering and divisive finger pointing at a time when we should be banding together to turn things around,” Kristina Hathaway wrote in a resignation letter on the lab’s message board. “It’s sad, and it’s shameful.”

Biotech'€™s First Musical Instrument Plays Proteins Like Piano Keys (Scientific American)

A biophysicist and composer have banded together to create a music box that turns biology into sound

First comes a cacophony of gongs, then flutters of chimes, then a deep melodic whale call—these are the sounds of the first musical instrument powered by biotechnology. The music comes from a black box in the home lab of Josiah Zayner, a biophysicist at the University of Chicago. 

The Melting Ice Road of Zanskar (Roads & Kingdoms)

The first thing you feel when you fall through a frozen river is frustration. Next panic, when the water soaks through your parka and your fleece layers begin to freeze. Finally, you reach acceptance when you can’t lift yourself up onto the ice, the throbbing in your fingers fades, and your hands no longer seem as if they’re your own. In that moment, you might have a chance for reflection, to consider what villain or foul luck brought you here. For me, the villain was climate change.

Natural products emergent (Nature Medicine)

Natural compounds produced by the world’s microbes were once the go-to source of molecules for the drug industry before the chemistry dried up and big pharma went packing. Now, researchers hope that advances in genomics will bring companies back into the fold. Daniel Grushkin visits one startup hoping to accelerate the process.

Miami Heist: The Brink's Money Plane Job's Messy Aftermath (Businessweek)

In the fall of 2005, Karls Monzon’s childhood friend and neighbor Onelio Diaz approached him with a proposal. Diaz worked as a security guard for Brink’s at Miami International Airport. Every day, he explained, a Lufthansa jet from Frankfurt landed at the airport carrying bricks of $50 and $100 bills in bags. The shipments were from Germany’s second-largest bank, Commerzbank, and averaged between $80 million and $100 million per flight.

Threat to global GM soybean access as patent nears expiry (Nature Biotech)

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This October, five major seed companies came together to sign the first part of an agreement called the Generic Event Marketability and Access Agreement (GEMAA). Facilitated by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) of Washington, DC, and the American Seed Trade Association of Alexandria, Virginia, the accord is a legally binding contract that covers expirations of single-gene patents, and aims to ensure global access to genetically modified (GM) crops, even once they go off patent. 

The Case of the Disappearing Daguerreotypes (Scientific American)

In the theaterlike darkness of the international Center of Photography in New York City, black-and-white ghosts of New England’s mid-19th-century Boston Brahmins stared out from behind the glass-and-rosewood frames. These were the works of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, the Rembrandts of daguerreotypy—the first practical form of photography. A demure bride in white silk crepe fingered her ribbons; the stern and haughty statesman Daniel Webster glared from behind his brow. When the “Young America” exhibit opened in 2005, its 150-year-old images captured American icons at a time when the nation was transitioning from adolescence into a world power. “Each picture glows on the wall like a stone in a mood ring,” the New York Times raved in its review.

Yet after a month on exhibit, the silver plate–bound images began to degrade. White spots overtook half the portrait of a woman in a curtain-length skirt. Iridescent halos formed on abolitionist Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. Other images blistered. By the end of the two-and-a-half-month show, 25 daguerreotypes had been damaged, five of them critically.

— Podcast: Get with the (gene) program

Synthetic biology has historically relied on bacteria as a testing ground for engineering cell behavior through genetic signals. But a small group of researchers have their sights set on redesigning mammalian cells, which have more complex genetic machinery. Daniel Grushkin meets the scientists aiming to reprogram our bodies’ cells for a new generation of tailor-made treatments.

Book Review: 'Makers,' by Chris Anderson (Businessweek)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart in the ’90s version of Star Trek, used to walk up to a cabinet on the USS Enterprise and say, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” A steaming cup would magically materialize, as Chris Anderson recalls in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. The cabinet was called the Replicator, and it produced food along with the dishes, napkins, and silverware.

The Rise And Fall Of The Company That Was Going To Have Us All Using Biofuels (Fast Company)

Amyris’s breakthroughs in bioengineering—and its plans to make biofuels from Brazilian sugarcane—promised to transform how the world’s businesses produce energy, cosmetics, and medicine. Then reality (and Wall Street) got in the way.

The climb up the steel steps is dizzying—like ascending the tower of a European church, except the steps lead to a platform bolted to the side of a gleaming new chemical plant. Here in Brazil, under a brilliant blue sky, Eduardo Loosli, the plant manager, pauses to explain a vision of the future. “I used to manage a Molson Coors beer manufacturing plant, and it’s not all that different,” he says, leaning on a railing and surveying the scene around us. Directly below is a cityscape of huge stainless-steel tanks. Out beyond the tanks, and stretching far into the distance, are dense greenfields of sugarcane.

The Life Engineers (Scientific American)

Pinning down exactly what Ridley Scott’s larger-than-lifePrometheusmeans may be impossible. But it’s safe to say that the movie – the 3-D quasi-prequel to Scott’s seminal technoscience-horror fable, Alien – is self-consciously a myth for our scientific era.

The Fish That Ate the Whale (Businessweek)


In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’état in Guatemala that was more ruse than revolution. Agents transmitted fake newscasts of a right-wing uprising, dropped smoke bombs on Guatemala City, and sent a 39-year-old ex-colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas to invade the country with a band of 400 mercenaries. That the operation succeeded in ousting Guatemala’s democratically elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz, was a surprise. That the CIA itself had been manipulated was a catastrophe.