Biohacking, or DIYbio, has to be one of the most exciting subcultures active today. A network of people worldwide are taking biotechnology out of the lab and making it easier and more hackable. They can then use it to repair, rebuild or replace equipment and protocols to fit the low-budget and sometimes messy world of basement labs. Most people do it for fun, or out of pure curiosity. Others do it to solve problems not serviced by the traditional arms of biotechnology and academia. Others still, do it for political or intellectual reasons. Most have no formal training in biology beyond secondary school (if that), and many are in countries whose institutions don’t have the resources to do much better.
I work with others around the world on a great, shared project to make biological science something, not only understandable to the general public, but into a skill or hobby that is accessible and useful to anyone with a passion and enough patience to learn. The study and manipulation of life is a skill as ancient as civilisation itself, but the last century has seen an unprecedented trend where people effectively abandoned living technologies in favour of inert ones: we aim to reverse that, and push back.
Tell us more about your practice and networks of collaborators and how you work to do biology outside the conventional lab.
My ‘practice’ is a converted ensuite bedroom, where I have built a lab bench abutting a teetering computer desk. Atop the desk is a collection of constructed, cobbled or recycled equipment, and below it is a selection of incongruous food ingredients and abused pharmacy-brand chemicals. In the fridge and the polystyrene box that serves as an incubator, you’ll find the biological components: the bacterial cells and DNA samples that comprise my ongoing research into ‘distributed biotechnology’.
My current goal is to create and provide a set of systems for the easy production of critical lab enzymes, using equipment and ingredients you’d find in the supermarket. The ‘price by weight’ for the cheapest lab enzyme, EcoRI, is higher than for weapons-grade uranium, and yet the costs to produce it are negligible. So make, don’t pay! I want to help trigger a wave of ‘Free or Libre Biotech’ that will topple the myth of inaccessible biotech for good.
My collaborators are a loosely affiliated group of postnational hackers, who share ideas, feedback, protocols and sometimes even physical stuff, by highvolume mailing lists, blogs and even on Twitter. We don’t all share a mission. Many — perhaps most — are in this for fun, not to fulfil some overarching political or social goal. But I find it’s hard not to develop a grand vision, faced with this much possibility.
Do you believe that science will shift to noninstitutional practice, or do you think noninstitutional practitioners will become increasingly professionalised to work with synthetic biology?
When computers escaped the labs, computer science did not shrink. Far from it, scientists were freed to focus on the pure science of a field that began to boom and expand exponentially. On the other side, hackers didn’t turn into academics in order to understand and push boundaries. Similarly, I think that as the engineering of life escapes the labs, academics will thrive on a newfound ability to focus on ‘big’ science, perhaps at lower cost due to biohacker-made equipment and reagents. Meanwhile, some biohackers will remain scientific and methodical as they ask and answer questions, but many will leave the scientific method behind in favour of creative or technical work. Their different outlook will lead to technology we can’t yet imagine.
Do you think that this approach can survive in the current political framework?
What challenges are posed to DIYbio by politics and society? Regulatory, certainly. We currently exist in a very tightly constrained environment in Europe. Despite abundant opportunities for external funding, only a small handful of the community in Europe are legally permitted to conduct productive research, and CATHAL GARVEY Biohacker and Science Gallery Leonardo 14 / 15 so European biohackers have focused more on niche (but nevertheless excellent) projects like directed water snail evolution, microbial fuel cells, bioplastics, DNA fingerprinting, and outreach and education activities. While this constraint is forcing us to be creative in our approaches, it’s holding us back, while biohackers elsewhere attract larger and more active communities and advance more ambitious and impressive projects. Europe is a fundamentally hostile place to do science, but that is likely to change in coming years. I think scientists have generally realised that the platonic ideal of a passive, unopinionated and unpolitical scientist is not only impossible, but fundamentally unwise. People respond better to anecdote, story, passion, mission. When we remain silent, proponents of false science prevail: vaccine scares, agricultural vandalism, false remedies made of water. More and more scientists are starting to speak out, and it is having a real effect. Not only do I expect this to benefit biohackers, I expect biohacking to benefit science as a whole in Europe. What better way to dispel anti-GM hysteria than to let people learn to understand and even create their own GM organisms? Similarly, what better way to rebuild trust in vaccines and real medicines than to let people learn about bacteria, antibiotics and the mechanisms of resistance first-hand? Looking inward, how better to hold bad science to account than to have a larger group of science-literate citizens scrutinising the news and demanding better evidence?
Do you think that parallels with information technology can work with a biological substrate?
The ‘hacker ethic’ inherited from the hacker community has been the most influential cultural influence on DIYbio and biohacking, in my view. The computer metaphor, too, has been potent. Not only in legitimising the potential for DIYbio, but also in guiding the direction of research and improvements in current practice. But, there are stress points in the metaphor.
For one thing, the digital-to-biological model leads to the false assumption that DNA behaves linearly and does not exhibit context sensitivity. In other words, that computer programming paradigms can be directly transposed into biology and used without adaptation. However, life does not conform to this assumption at all. While cells can be ‘programmed’, the way we must think about these programs is dramatically different to how we approach computers, and we’re being forced to create new systems from the ground up to follow the dream of cellular computing. The culture of information technology is constructive at the technological end of synbio and biohacking, but I feel it is less appropriate when applied socially to the impacts and human factors. A hacker’s pet project online is avoidable to others, a curio or webapp that can be simply ignored. A biohacker creates a thing that can breed, grow, spread and invade. Although vastly overblown by special interest groups and false-science proponents, the risks in biology have little parallel in computers, and vice versa.
And yet, the fact that biology has realworld consequences may prove the redemption of biohacking and put the lie to fearmongers. A computer virus can crash thousands of servers without harming a single person, so there is no strong moral consequence to dissuade a talented, if misguided, programmer from writing one. The same personality does not necessarily lend itself to creating malicious works of nature. In that case, our parallels are inappropriate in a positive sense. We cannot claim biological viruses will be as common as computer viruses. As nobody has yet maliciously hacked a hospital or pacemaker, despite ample opportunity, we might surmise that malicious bio-viruses simply won’t occur in our lifetimes; not until long after the means to counter them becomes widespread and efficient.
Finally, the parallels only go so far for basic reasons of structure and physics. While a biological aerial is entirely possible, it’s easier to make from metal or silicon. While a biological x86 processor is equally possible, it would be slower and less efficient than a chip. Biology is simply better at making parallel computers in which many calculations are carried out simultaneously, such as brains. Biology will always be more mutable, adaptable and, essentially, more ‘wet’ than silicon. As we outgrow the silicon metaphor and learn to harness this squishy technology more effectively, we’ll cease to need metaphors entirely; biology will simply be technology, as it was before.