Should we be Concerned about Biohacking?

The first thing most people will have thought when they read the title of this blog would be “what on Earth is ‘Biohacking’?”. A quick google of this new buzzword comes up with a variety of results, since a lot of different organisations have tried to coin the phrase as their own. One group associates biohacking with a way of unlocking a person’s inner potential by ‘hacking’ the human body with neat tips and tricks. Another is a group of transhumanists who are interested in transcending the limits of the human body with the use of technology. Whilst these are both interesting, the focus of this article rests on the use of the term to refer to freelance or do-it-yourself biology: performing biology outside of the traditional research lab.

Whilst you might not have heard the word before, the term ‘biohacking’ actually dates back to the 80s, with the movement and community beginning to really grow since 2005. The concept is simple: move biology out of the lab and into your basement, kitchen, or more recently shared lab spaces specially designated for biohackers, or DIYbiologists as they are also known.

You might think that this is a bit farfetched, as modern day biology requires expensive equipment, access to many chemicals and reagents, and generally a sum of capital to get going. In recent years however, as the community has grown, several of the key technologies for biology – microbiology and genetics in particular – have become available to the average Joe’s budget. Thermocyclers for PCR and Centrifuges are becoming available for less than $1000, making them much more available than when the base price for these machines was something only a lab’s budget could afford. Furthermore, with the accessibility of 3D printing, many basic pieces of lab equipment are being made or adapted from household items, with only the small unique pieces being 3D printed. Examples from organisations such as Gaudilabs include centrifuges made from hard disk drives, a microscope made from a computer webcam, and even DIY versions of the NanoDrop devices that are becoming a mainstay of the modern lab.

Unsurprisingly, cheaper scientific equipment isn’t what is causing controversy – though you won’t catch me with a centrifuge made out of a power drill in my lab – the controversy lies in the legislation, or lack thereof. At the moment, the biohacker movement operates on its own terms, outside of ethical or government-imposed limitations. I don’t mean to imply that the biohacker movement is a hotbed of morally devoid evil scientists – to date nothing of the sort has occurred – but this is where the worry lies.

In past, the USA’s FBI have sent agents to biohacker conventions to try and snoop out potential bio-terrorism threats, and in the past have arrested biohackers for experiments on microorganisms which were in fact completely harmless. Many have pointed to these events as an example of over cautiousness and an act of political repression, persecuting a group of individuals who haven’t done anything wrong.

Advocates of the biohacker cause point out that they are a well-meaning community, who largely regulate themselves, and at this point in time no large-scale genetic engineering projects have been undertaken. Moving forward though, the question remains with whether ‘open-source biology’ that is available to all is a good thing or not. The answer to this is hard to say – greater access to the field is no bad thing, allowing people who wouldn’t normally have the means to study science to have their chance to make the next big discovery could do wonders for biology.

Looking to other open source communities also points to a bright future for biohackers. The fields of computer science and engineering greatly benefit from the transparency afforded by open-source – computer science moving forward a speed that publishing almost fails to keep up! Members of the biohacker community point to the parallels between ‘hackerspaces’ for computer scientists and for biologists, with the computer scientists reaping the benefits afforded by opening the playing field to those who would not normally have the means to do so, in a community that regulates itself well through its proactive and well-meaning members.

So, as the title posits, should we be worried about biohackers and open-source biology? Right now is an interesting time to look into how DIY biology should be regulated, and by who. Certainly other similar communities have greatly benefited from this structure, not showing any signs of the concerns mentioned above. The field could be opened wide up, but with concerns over bioweapons, GMOs and ethical implications, we could see a stamp down on this growing phenomenon. As advocates and enthusiasts put it, concerns should be met with education and research to prevent any problems before they happen. It is definitely something to look out for in the future, whether with encouragement or caution, and who knows, maybe the next big Nature paper could come straight out of somebody’s basement.

Robert Millar (Society for Applied Microbiology / University of Warwick)

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