Biohack the Planet! A New Generation of Hackers Sweep Across the Country

Keith Syverson by Keith Syverson

The recent phenomenon of “biohacking” has been quietly gaining momentum.  In February 2010, Lori Andrews blogged about her experience at UCLA’s Outlaw Genetics conference.  Just last week, the international scientific journal Nature published an article titled “Garage Biotech: Life Hackers” describing the growing trend.  The steadily decreasing cost of molecular biology equipment has lead to a movement where amateur scientists, calling themselves biohackers, purchase equipment and set up their own molecular biology labs in their garages.  Proponents of the movement liken it to the open source movement in software.  The idea is that the “democratization of science” will bring fresh new talent to improve scientific instruments and uncover new applications for biotechnology.  At the very least, the name “biohackers” sounds cool.

Biohackers and do-it-yourself biologists come in all forms.  Geneticist Hugh Rienhoff created a home laboratory to study his ailing daughter’s rare genetic condition.  Others, like Rob Carlson, simply became frustrated with the tedious process of annually filling out grant applications to secure funding at his academic lab. The real down-and-dirty biohackers, however, are simply hobbyists with little or no formal training in molecular biology.  For example the article in Nature mentions Meredith Patterson, a computer programmer based in San Francisco California who created glow-in-the-dark yogurt by engineering a yeast strain in a garage lab.  There are growing online communities such as DIYbio where biohackers come together to share protocols and instructions for making cheaper lab equipment.  Other groups, such as the Silicon Valley-based BioCurious, are seeking to furnish a shared lab space where members of the club pay dues in exchange for classes taught by local graduate students and timeshares in the lab.

Although most of the current biohackers are performing experiments at barely a high-school level, there are serious safety and regulatory concerns associated with these types of garage labs.  The first concern is the safety of the biohackers themselves.  Many of the chemicals required to extract DNA and perform basic molecular biology experiment, e.g. phenol, chloroform, and ethidium bromide,  are extremely toxic and can cause serious health problems.  Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) produce safety guidelines for basic laboratory research, they are geared towards University laboratories or other high-tech (and well funded) laboratories.  On top that, these guidelines are laden with technical jargon that the average biohacker simply may not understand.  The do-it-yourself (for cheap) mentality that led to home built electrophoreses machines and the zero-dollar 37 degree incubator (biohackers are incubating test tubes in their arm pits) may also encourage would-be biologists to cut corners on other vital safety equipment.  For example, someone may decide they do not want to spend the several thousand dollars to purchase a fume hood and, as a result, could be inhaling caustic chemicals.

In addition to the possibility of harming themselves, biohackers could release potentially dangerous genetically modified bacteria into the environment.  A person who skimps on sterilization equipment or improperly disposes his or her science project could be releasing artificially altered bacteria into the environment with no idea of the potential harmful effects.  Groups like DIYbio post safety instructions on their websites and encourage members to be as safe as possible but without formal training people might not truly understand the health risks or the potential environmental risks.  Additionally, these home labs are almost impossible to inspect or police because the authorities are simply unaware of their existence.

The health and safety risks are just the tip of the iceberg.  Richard Preston in The Demon in the Freezer explained how terrifyingly simple it is to engineer bacteria or viruses for nefarious purposes–and that was in 2002!  There is also something a little disconcerting with an unsupervised, unregulated laboratory in someone’s basement.  Not surprisingly, the FBI is aware of the potential dangers and has been closely monitoring the biohacking movement.  They have implemented a neighborhood watch approach where members of the community are encouraged to report suspicious activity to the FBI.  It isn’t hard to imagine a situation where a biohacker could be found to violate the PATRIOT ACT, which includes a provision against bioterrorism:  “Whoever knowingly possesses any biological agent . . . of a type or in a quantity that, under the circumstances, is not reasonably justified by a prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.”  18 U.S.C. § 175(b).

For example, in 2004, FBI agents seized laboratory equipment and two benign strains of bacteria from BioArtist Steven Kurtz’s residence after paramedics responding to an unrelated emergency at the Kurtz residence discovered “materials that made them uneasy.”  Kurtz was never charged with violating the PATRIOT ACT, but instead was charged with mail and wire fraud.  He obtained the bacteria used in his art project from a University of Pittsburgh Scientist, Robert Ferrell.  Ferrell pled guilty and was fined $500 for providing the samples to Kurtz while Kurtz’s suit was later dismissed.

Although the biohacking movement has been has been growing, most biohackers are little more than hobbyists who get a thrill from “engineering” glow-in-the-dark bacteria.  There are many practical problems with “biohacking” preventing it from achieving the same success as the underground open source movement in software development.  The startup costs can be prohibitively expensive and many reagent manufacturers are reluctant to send chemicals or biological materials to a residential address.  On top of that, the materials are, in a word, dangerous.  While the prospect of creating newer, cheaper scientific equipment or stumbling onto the cure for cancer may be enticing, greater care should be taken to ensure that these biohackers are conducting benign research in a manner that is safe to them and the environment.  For now it seems that biohackers know (or don’t know) just enough to be dangerous.