The IFTF Blog
The Rise of the Underground Bio-Economy
We like to look to hidden places to find some of our most intriguing signals about the future--and in this case, an unusual crime seems to be pointing toward the increasingly important, and increasingly contentious role that biological sciences will have in fields like food and health in the next decade. That unusual crime? The black market trade of hookworm as a DIY cure for auto-immune disorders such as asthma.
The latest author to chronicle the black market trade of hookworm is Moises Velasquez-Manoff, whose new book about the role that bacteria play in modulating our health by chronicling his trip to Tijuana to intentionally infect himself with a parasite that humans have spent years trying to get rid of.
I haven't yet had a chance to read the book, but in an interview with Wired, Velasquez-Manoff describes his experience of going to "the hookworm underground" to treat food allergies and other auto-immune challenges with mixed feelings:
There were definitely some changes for the good, and definitely some side effects. I had a pretty severe reaction for a few weeks. I took it in November, and then by hay fever season my nose was completely clear. My fingernails were less pitted. Hair started growing here and there — very fine, like peach fuzz, which was pretty cool, but there was nothing near remission of anything.
As I point out in the book, there was a lot of variability. That’s probably what happens with living organisms you buy on the black market. The thing about the underground is that you don’t know the quality of the larvae, or even if you’re getting what you think you’re getting. I had my parasites genetically confirmed, so I have that confidence. But I have to say, the more I got involved with it, the less I thought it was a good idea.
I think the theory has great merit. The animal models are pretty much unequivocal. But when you start thinking about yourself, or your own children, you say, ‘How certain am I?’ And the uncertainty undercuts the idea. No one should do what I did. Let the science provide something safe, which it will.
The concept of the hookworm underground is reminiscent of the Seed Underground, the title of a second book (which I've only read excerpts of) by Janisse Ray. In it, she chronicles gardeners, small-scale farmers, and others who hold onto heirloom crops in an effort to retain biodiversity, and control over what they produce.
As she writes in this excerpt:
The fact remains that in the last one hundred years, 94 percent of seed varieties available at the turn of the century in America and considered a part of the human commons have been lost...
First is the loss to our plates and palates. It’s sad to miss, and not know we’re missing, all those different kinds of apples, cabbages, corn, tomatoes, and so on. Second is the loss of sovereignty over seeds and the ability to control our food supply.
Emphasis hers--but if she hadn't emphasized control, I would have. The idea of "control" captures what's going on here--for the hookworm underground and the seed underground--as in both instances, participants are using new understandings and tools from biology to take control over their food, health and other aspects of their lives.
But control also captures the more formal side of the story--efforts of regulators to figure out how to maintain control in a world where incredibly advanced biological tools can be put to use in hotel conference rooms, or, for that matter, efforts of large agricultural companies, whose core IP lies in biological expertise, to maintain control in a world where anyone can tinker with biology.
Which is to say that these early signals of underground biology point toward the increasingly central role that biological innovation will play in shaping our understandings of our own health--as well as the broad landscape of innovation in the next decade.