Advances in biological science are happening every day. This being the 21st century, that fact may not come as too much of a surprise to anyone. However, the next big breakthrough in biotech might not arise from a prominent research lab or university, but in the garage, kitchen, or home laboratory of adherents of a growing movement called DIY Biohacking.
DIY Biohacking, called such because practitioners “hack” the scientific process the way computer hackers manipulate code, represents the democratization of lab experimentation, most notably in the field of genetic engineering. Dedicated biohackers make use of rapidly advancing tech to carry out gene modification projects far outside of traditional labs. While this may sound a bit dicey to the uninitiated, the world of biohacking offers the promise of more rapid, unencumbered development with an aim towards the greater good. Experiments that today draw confusion or indifference could end up carrying humanity into a new era of genetic freedom.
The benefits of the DIY approach are several. Much of the money for scientific research, contrary to popular belief, comes from corporate concerns with often-questionable motives. Not to mention considerable incentives to keep any interesting findings secret, lest their competitors find out and beat them to market. With home experiments, there are no worries about following regimens set by those providing the funding. The DIY scene, in fact, encourages open sharing of information and decentralized access to new findings and technological advancements.
In addition, the freedom open to those homebrewed hackers means they can take their research in whatever direction pleases them. Many great steps forward in science have come from experiments that went in a different direction than expected, either as a result of scientists’ tinkering, or making mistakes. Microwaves, anesthesia and penicillin are just a few examples of the multitude of developments that arose from scientists going just a little outside the parameters that had been set for them. The biohacking movement isn’t guaranteeing similar leaps in progress, to be sure. But free of the constraints that often limit professional scientists, the possibilities are open beyond imagination.
Biohackers are already making noise in the mainstream media. Practitioner and entrepreneur Josiah Zayner was recently profiled by Buzzfeed, claiming that he’s been able to engineer genes that promote muscle growth, a kind of organic anabolic steroid which is (allegedly) safer than the alternatives. While critics are dubious about the self-promoting Zayner’s declaration, he’s one of many on the frontier of bringing biohacking into the forefront. As time goes on, it’s not impossible to imagine the mainstreaming of homebrewed health and gene therapies meeting real health needs.
The biohacking movement has gone global in recent years, and not just in homes and garages. Collective labs known as “hackerspaces” have popped up around the world, offering a dedicated place for amateur and part-time scientists to design experiments around whatever their minds can conjure. DIYbio, a biohacking interest group, lists on their website nearly 100 different dedicated hackerspaces from Florida to Belgium to Singapore.
While there are considerable advantages, there are certainly some drawbacks to the DIY approach. The potential for a biological disaster, while remote, does exist when amateurs are involved in such a sphere. Although generally limited in means and access, biohackers dealing with genetic materials do have more power at their fingertips than the average hobbyist.
To address such concerns, DIYbio created a Code of Ethics for prospective followers to adhere to. The code encourages safe and constructive approaches to this experimentation, anchored by a respect for the environment and potential outcomes. This might sound like cold comfort to skeptics, but the fact remains that genetic engineering is still a massively difficult project, one with many barriers to implementation.
Worries about a garage tinkerer creating a worldwide pandemic, or hybrid monster, remain the realm of fiction. The truth is that these home researchers’ motivations are closer to weekend tinkerers than those of mad scientists. Projects like glow-in-the-dark beer and synthetic cheese are closer to the typical results of a today’s biohacking endeavors than a homebrewed bioweapon or pathogen.
In fact, while biohacking does bring new potential to home-based scientific experiments, biotech still remains a highly complicated endeavor. An ambitious plan to sell glow-in-the-dark plants via a Kickstarter famously fell flat, with its creators admitting in essence that their plan to distribute genetically modified seeds was far more complex than they had expected.
Not to say that the biohackers’ ambitions aren’t always so misplaced. More successful projects in the DIY sphere have included the manufacture of professional-grade DNA multiplying devices known as PCR machines. These boxes, vital to DNA research, perform what’s known as “amplification,” making DNA samples large enough for proper observation and testing. What were formerly only available to well-funded labs with thousands of dollars to spend are now available to interested parties with the requisite amount of free time and under $100.
While the field is still quite young and limited at this point, bringing biotech into the hands of the people carries the potential to meet utopian needs outside of the typical lab-based profit motives. A benevolent biohacking movement may one day be able to take the steps to cure diseases and feed the hungry, without needing to report to shareholders or a board of trustees. Instead, they can measure their success by how many they’ve helped, not just profited from.
A blueprint of sorts for this democratization of biotech was written back in 2007 (eons, in tech years) by physicist Freeman Dyson. His essay Our Biotech Future described a future where, as he put it, “the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.”
Dyson felt that the motivations of future biotechnologists will be focused towards compassion and self-fulfillment, rather than profit motives. He went on to say that fears about home bioengineering are extremely similar to fears about computing in the mid-20th century. Anxious that access to computers was, at that time out of the public’s hands and used to sometimes deadly means (like designing the hydrogen bomb) meant that widespread fear of the machines was a somewhat rational response. Can biotech, like computers, become something that we all engage with on a daily basis?
The answers await us in the future. Biohacking has already brought genetic engineering into homes and citizen laboratories across the globe. With these tools in thousands more hands than ever before, the next step is to focus these efforts into the greater good. Only then will DIY Biohacking be more than a simple diversion. For the future of this movement, and biotechnology as a whole, change is in the hands of the people. It’s still to be seen what will come of it.