The biohacking movement is making scientific research accessible to everyone under the form of low-cost community labs. What does it mean to be a biohacker and how is it changing the way we do science?
Scientific research is undoubtedly an arduous endeavor. One that requires highly trained and skilled scientists and that can only be performed inside state-of-the-art laboratories. Or is it?
Biohacking, also known as DIY biology, is a growing phenomenon in the field of life sciences. People of all skill levels, from trained researchers with PhDs to amateurs with little or no scientific training, meet in McGuyvered laboratories for a common goal: democratize science and innovation.
“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 the accelerator Indie BIO.
Biohacking labs, also called hackerspaces or hacklabs, are often set up in garages or warehouses, with second-hand equipment bought online. Within these unconventional laboratories, anyone interested in science can perform experiments 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 about biology, or just curious, started to create small groups to assemble low-cost laboratories and provide aspiring scientists with training and classes.
Biohacking labs like BioCurious, LA Biohackers, Genspace, Bioartlab, Biogarage, and many others have taken off around the world. DIYbio.org, a support organization for DIY groups, currently lists 44 biohacking labs in North America, 31 in Europe and 17 across Asia, South America and Oceania.
As the movement grew over the last decade, biohackers 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.
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, while the startup cost of digital hacking is a computer, setting up a proper, working lab costs a lot of money. Still, biohackers have proved themselves capable of raising considerable amounts of money through donations and fundraising websites like Kickstarter. The New York-based Genspace, one of the most famous hacklabs in the US, managed to pull in almost $500,000 in contributions in 2015.
Another challenge is the lack of expertise. Learning how to do a randomized experiment, or simply how to plan and analyze your data is a skill that takes years of 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.
Safety is also a concern. 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 encourage the institutionalization of the DIYbio movement so it can be useful to the society without being a threat.
Public fears are not just about pathogens: biohackers have access to advanced technologies like CRISPR-Cas9, maybe the most precise and accessible gene editing tool 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 these fears 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. Around 19% of biohackers have a PhD, and most of their research requires low-security facilities.
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 is 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.
This article was originally published on January 2017