ILL beaming children, 10 or 15 years from now, be presenting their genetically engineered sheep at the 4-H Club?" asks genetic engineer Brian Seed, assistant professor of molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital. "No doubt about it."

While state-of-the-art biotechnology isn't child's play, twiddling the genetic code -- to engineer new plants, design and synthesize interesting drugs or explore the inner beyonds of human DNA -- won't be always be high tech.

"The kids at Stuyvesant {high school in New York City} are doing as Westinghouse Science Fair projects things that {Nobel laureate Walter} Gilbert never taught us at college. It's going that fast," says Vivian Lee, a 1981 Harvard biochemistry grad and now a biotechnology consultant.

Clearly, the technology of biotechnology is getting faster, easier and cheaper. As well as more accessible: In 1985, Cold Spring Harbor Lab in New York, headed by double-helix co-discoverer James Watson, began offering a course in genetic engineering techniques for high-school biology teachers. {See box.}

"What we are doing now is going to look mindless and simple five years from now," asserts Tom St. John, a molecular biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, who is regarded as one of the best "gene jocks" in the country. "You can pick up any recent issue of Science magazine, flip through it and find ads for kit after kit of biotechnology techniques. These techniques have basically been put into styrofoam boxes." As the trend continues, he says, "this month's hard project is next year's kit."

The public has been so caught up debating the potential and risks of biotechnology products that few are focusing on the questions raised by the diffusion of the techniques.

Yet the prospect of "bathtub biotech" is real if not imminent, and it merits more serious evaluation than hysterical headlines such as "Won't Johnny's Cat Be Surprised When He Has Kittens!" or "Teen Whiz Clones Death Virus in High-School Lab." This is especially true if, as seems likely, the path of biotechnology parallels the diffusion of personal computing technology after the invention of the microprocessor in 1972.

The Rise of the Bio-hacker

Personal computing began as a "homebrew" hobby phenomenon with aspiring computerniks wiring up chips, toggle-switches and teletypes to produce desktop machines. Skeptics sneered that personal computers were a solution in search of a problem. Now, several million unit sales later, the typewriter has become the dodo bird of word-processing, pimply-faced hackers can break into corporate data networks and yesterday's cutting-edge computer is today's paperweight.

"The parallels to the microprocessor industry are there," says Lynn Klotz, formerly on the faculty of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard and a director of BioTechnica International, a Cambridge, Mass. recombinant DNA firm. "Both are characterized by general ease of use and declining costs."

"As a body, the biotechnology industry is not unlike where the computer industry was in 1975," says sociologist Everett Rogers, a University of Southern California professor who has conducted extensive research into the diffusion of innovation, "There's a lot of uncertainty, a lot of rapid innovation and no single main consumer product." Rogers points out that hackers -- a technology subculture he studied while at Stanford -- were attracted to computers as a medium "where they could express themselves in an artistic way, a creative way. A number of computer hackers did indeed win science fairs either with hardware or software they created." With the insistent diffusion of biotechnology, Rogers believes, a technology subculture could grow around DNA just as one did for silicon and software. He wryly notes that when the news media discovered computer hackers, "people went into a state of alarm. There were movies about hackers. Perhaps in a few years there will be movies about {bio-hackers} creating Frankensteinian monsters."

Biotechnologists stress that fiddling with the genetic code of a living organism is significantly tougher than whipping up a clever software subroutine. "Unlike computer hacking, this is not the sort of thing where you can just pick up a language or a few tricks," says Mass. General's Seed. "To accomplish something, you've got to sink a lot of time into it."

Monsanto Co. senior vice president and chief scientist Howard Schneiderman, a biotechnology pioneer, argues that the computer analogy is flawed: Biotechnology is more like the laboriously expensive process of making computer chips than the low-budget intellectual exercise of writing software.

"I just believe that there are technical barriers now that make it really difficult to see this technology as easy to do as writing," he says. Nonetheless, "it's easy to picture a high-school class in the early to middle 1990s using biotechnology to produce insulin, especially if a Genentech sponsored a few high-school labs."

Hutchinson's St. John believes that biotech for clever high-schoolers is simply a matter of time. Getting Escherichia coli -- the "bacterial factory" that biotechnologists use to synthesize organic chemicals -- to perform genetic tricks for the intellectually adventurous shouldn't be too difficult. The cost of running a moonshine E. coli still would approximate that of a good personal computer system.

"It would be pretty easy to get the E. Coli to glow in the dark," says St. John, "then to get it to eat the motor-oil in the backyard -- that would be pretty easy, too. Maybe you could get it to eat the mold in the refrigerator." If biotechnology continues to pour down the learning curve, the implications are astounding.

Gardeners might be able to produce interesting and robust plant strains; genetic entrepreneurs could breed pets with certain special characteristics; eventually, individuals might be able to scan their own gene maps at home to see what predispositions they possess. Of course, genetic engineering techniques could be used to grow new and improved marijuana as well as to craft a new generation of illegal "designer drugs" even more powerful and seductive than the current crop. Clearly, there's an economic incentive. Biotechnology could also serve as a complement to illegal drug use: One might be able to measure his body's genetic tolerance for a specific drug and adjust the dosage to ensure a "safe" high.

Monsanto's Schneiderman believes that computerdom's hackers will fuse software with biotech to craft stunning new models of proteins, enzymes and other organic chemicals for future generations of pharmaceuticals. Hackers will be "hooking up to National Institutes of Health databases and coming up with new protein designs," he says, just as they now use computer graphics to design silicon chips.

"There's a guy in our lab using his personal computer, taking existing databases and analyzing them with success that's beyond his wildest imagination," says Hutchinson's St. John, "He's processing gene-sequencing information and finding remarkable similarities in structure that were unsuspected before. Anybody could do this at home if they wanted to. It's as legitimate a way of exploring biology as bench experiments."

Rethinking the Species

This diffusion of technology into the public domain stands to transform our perception of living things as dramatically as the automobile changed society's view of travel or as TV and the VCR transformed leisure time.

What happens, for example, if future generations begin to see life as something that's manipulable -- just another computer program, but one in which the printout isn't on paper but in proteins? If children grow up believing that life is nothing more than organic chemistry?

"Our views of what life is -- and the boundary lines between species -- are going to change, perhaps blur, and it's hard to say what form those changes will take," says Biotechnica's Lynn Klotz. "One can transfer genes from species to species -- and it always goes a hell of a lot faster than we think it's going to go. I don't envision centaurs or mythical half-animals coming to life. But the possibility of transferring genes between species -- somehow that has to impress on one's psyche what a species is."

Monsanto's Schneiderman is somewhat more sanguine: "In any great field -- in any field with texture and content -- you will see individuals writing poems. The question here is, What poems would be in a grammar that nature would use? Things that are really absurd or outlandish, nature rejects."

But when a technology and its skill-base have diffused beyond the groves of academe or industry, the questions are no longer those of science, but of human behavior. Film and video auteurs have shot works of art but also created a multi-million-dollar pornography business; computer hackers have designed great programs, but have also violated people's privacy and devised insidious forms of cybernetic theft.

None of the federal agencies that oversee the regulation of biotechnology has begun to discuss publicly these kinds of scenarios, preferring instead to focus on what impact new biotechnology products might have on population and the environment.

But eventually society will have to confront the prospect of widespread diffusion. One possible response is regulation: Forbid biotech equipment outside licensed laboratories. (Which would be about as successful as trying to make possession of a personal computer and a modem in the hands of anyone under 21 a crime.) Another is awareness: The assumption that anyone smart enough to be a biohacker is smart enough to have a respect for life.

The truly frightening aspect of this technology isn't that the occasional outlaw will emerge. It's that society's beliefs about the nature of life will be so fragmented and confused that there will be no ethic for bio-hackers to emulate. In which case, all bets are off.