Copyright: Africa Studio

Biohackers – the geneticists in the garage

If you are living outside America, chances are you have not yet heard of DIYbio, a new approach to biotechnology that is already generating great interest across the Atlantic, and is now gathering pace in Europe.

DIYbio presents biotechnology as a hobby for individuals. Proponents aim to lower the bar for modern biotech by kindling a revolution in the way it is done. Extortionately priced equipment is shirked in favour of homemade models, or bought from a growing selection of hobbyist suppliers. Difficult lab protocols are re-written to remove jargon and explain key steps. Hazardous reagents or chemicals are replaced with safe alternatives, as are organisms that bear biosafety risks.

What’s the point? It’s the same as any research: to discover and disseminate knowledge, or to advance society. One group might analyse the microbial composition of a municipal or industrial waste site, another might answer questions about their own genomes, and others might reprogram microbes to fulfil commercial, ecological or social needs. The application of genetic testing to foods to test for objectionable content could help improve accountability among suppliers and restaurants.

The common denominator is often an area of research that is seen as an “orphan”, something that either will never be done because of a lack of commercial interest, or which the community would rather were open-access, accountable and safe from patenting.

Perhaps a team of DIYbio hobbyists will create a strain of yeast that makes antimalarials, to supply the third world with desperately needed therapies, locally, scalably and virtually free. Another team might try to determine the root cause of a unique genetic disorder, as Hugh Rienhoff is doing for his daughter, because they know that nobody else will spare the time and money. Others might perform DIY bioprospecting, discovering and sharing their findings on new species of life to render them unpatentable or to share the possibilities of their genomic wealth.

The culture of DIYbio is borrowed in part from computer science, and from the growing “Open Source” and “Free Culture” movements. The prevailing attitude is that biotech has suffered from the high costs of monopoly, and that grassroots developments in low-cost, next-generation techniques will yield exponential returns. This attitude is emphatically shared by those involved in synthetic biology, and indeed ‘membership’ and philosophy between the two groups overlaps significantly. The dream is that DIYbio will evolve in much the way the IT industry has, with the next big Biotech company being founded in a garage by a handful of “biohackers”, just as Google began with two PhD candidates with rudimentary HTML and some inexpensive computer hardware.

Europe both benefits and suffers from a very different set of regulations to the USA, which may either encourage DIYbio or forbid it outright in different countries. If it emerges as a tool for invigorating public interest in science, or triggers a generation of lucrative commercial ventures abroad, we may miss out on a good thing. Knowing this, some Europeans are already pushing to develop a vibrant community here to match that in North America.

In Paris, the Hackerspace “TmpLab” have founded “BioHackLab”, where they perform DIYbio experiments as a group of like-minded hobbyists. In Belgium, Meredith Patterson and her husband Len Sassaman advocate “Biopunk”, another telling reference to Computer Science culture and history. A collection of biologically oriented art projects performed as part of Interactivos in Madrid grew into the site

As a subculture of science that is intimately married to the internet’s culture of openness and ubiquity, it is doubtless that, irrespective of where DIYbio is happening geographically, you will be hearing more about it in months to come.

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One thought on “Biohackers – the geneticists in the garage”

  1. I think it is great that people are taking science into their own hands (and garages) but I wonder whether the public view DIYbio as a bit ‘Frankenstein’?