The DIY biology movement is making scientific research accessible to everyone under the form of low-cost community-based labs. What does it mean to be a biohacker, and is this a new revolution for science?
Scientific research is undoubtedly an arduous endeavor; one that requires highly trained and skilled scientist and that can only be performed inside state of the art laboratories. Or is it? If you’ve heard of biohacking, this statement might seem outdated.
Biohacking, also known as DIY biology, is a growing phenomenon in the field of life sciences, and it is performed by people at a range of skill levels, from trained researchers with PhD’s to amateurs with little or no scientific training. These science enthusiasts meet in McGuyvered laboratories for a common goal: democratize science and innovation.
Biohacking labs are set up in garages or other non-traditional venues like disused warehouses, and they are supplied with second-hand equipment bought on online stores. Within these unconventional laboratories, citizens interested in science are provided with a space for training and learning so that anyone can perform experiments to find the answer to a scientific question and learn by doing.
Soon after the human genome had been fully sequenced in 2002, the first DIY biologists started tinkering with biological material. People passionate or just curious about research started to join together in small groups, finding places to assemble low-cost laboratories and providing aspiring scientists with training and classes.
“The whole idea of biohacking is that people feel entitled, they feel the ability to just follow their curiosity – where it should go – and really get to the bottom of something they want to understand,” said Ron Shigeta, CSO of Indie BIO.
Also called hackerspaces or hacklabs, biohacking labs like BioCurious, LA Biohackers, Genspace, Bioartlab, Biogarage and many others, have taken off around the world. DIYbio.org, a website that acts as a support organization for DIY groups, currently lists 44 biohacking labs between US and Canada, 31 in Europe and other 17 across Asia, South America and Oceania.
As the movement has grown over the lat decade, biohackers have started to make headlines. Meredith Patterson created a glow-in-the-dark yogurt by transfecting green fluorescent protein DNA into Lactobacillus, and physicist Rob Carlson created an entire lab in his garage.
Right from the definition of ‘biohacking’, this movement has frequently been compared to the computer revolution, in which the passion and curiosity of a few people triggered the rise of open-source software and communities all around the world that went on to completely change the market. Applying this open-source model to biology can potentially be as revolutionary as its digital predecessor.
However, this comparison is often considered inappropriate because of differences in budgets: setting up a proper, working lab costs a lot of money, while the startup cost of digital hacking is a computer. Although biohackers have proved capable of raising considerable amounts of money through donations and fundraising websites like Kickstarter, they still come up short. For example, the New York-based Genspace, one of the most famous hacklabs in the US, pulled in $104,769 and spent $95,870 in 2013; but compare that to the cost of developing a drug, $2.6 billion on average!
Money is not the only issue in the world of biohacking. Another major problem is the lack of expertise. Learning how to do a double-blind experiment, or simply how to plan and analyze your data is a skill that takes years, perhaps a decade of graduate training to refine. While many hacklabs are primarily for teaching, it still takes a lot of time and dedication to fully understand how research works.
A concern somewhat related to inexperience is one about safety. It is not surprising that neighbors would be worried about someone tinkering with biological material in a garage down the block. In response, biohackers have set up a common code to always respect local regulations and safety procedures. However, some claim that this is not enough and that the goal must be to encourage the institutionalization of the DIYbio movement; this structure would aim to legitimize the movement so it can be useful to the society without being a threat.
Public fears are not just about pathogens: biohackers have access to extremely advanced technologies like CRISPR, maybe the most precise and accessible gene editing technique available. In light of the history of eugenics, this comes with a host of ethical questions about the consequences. The public will want to know how hackers use it and if they know what they’re doing.
In 2013, the very first survey on DIY Biology suggested the fears of biohackers are largely unfounded. According to the results, 92% of DIY biologists work at least some of the time in communal spaces rather than in their garages or basements, so a modern Dr. Frankenstein won’t be building his monster next door. The spaces are composed mostly by young people — almost the 80% is under 45; and they do have some training, since 19% have attained a doctorate. Finally, only 6% claim that their research could possibly cause human diseases.
The biohacking movement and its attempt to democratize science could have a revolutionary effect on the world of research. Yet today, more than a decade after the first attempts, it is difficult to tell whether DIY biology is actually capable of “taking the industry by storm” or if it will remain just a way for enthusiasts to tinker with proteins and DNA in their spare time. At the very least, if hacklabs are successfully bringing science to citizens and educating them, so the democratization of science is happening for real.
Filippo Guizzetti. A biotechnologist turned into a science communicator. Musician, cinema and analogic photography enthusiast. Passionate about digging into the human and artistic side of science. Read more by him on his website.
Images from bee boys, goodmoments/Shutterstock