Biohacking and the Do-It-Yourself Biology revolution

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The term ‘hack’ evokes varied meanings. Some consider hacking as a sign of technical virtuosity, for some it is a ‘dirty’ word and to some it means danger and illicit activity. So what does it signify?

In 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone, a couple of teenage boys whom he had hired to run the switchboards were kicked off because they were more interested in knowing how the phone system worked rather than doing the mundane job of directing the calls to the correct place. In essence, what they were trying to do was “hack” the system to see how it worked.

A hacker in the classic sense of the term is someone who has a strong interest in understanding how ‘things’ work at a fundamental level and also enjoys modifying them or tinkering with them as a hobby or for convenience purposes. “Things” may refer to anything from software, electronics, biology, cooking, gardening, work, beauty hacks or even psychology.

“For some time, the term was largely associated with programming experts who tried to understand the function of the code (hack into the code) and modify it for their purposes”, says Dr. Hari Vishnu, a computer engineer at ARL, National University of Singapore.

However, owing to widespread media misuse, the term was given a negative connotation as someone who breaks into the security of a computer system, network or program for malicious purposes, he adds. Nowadays, people distinctly refer to the latter category as ‘crackers’ (specifically, security crackers) to distinguish it from the original broad meaning of the word ‘hacking’.

The Era of Biohacking

In the past decade, a new group of science tinkerers and risk takers known as Do-It-Yourself scientists or biohackers have arrived on the scene! These biohackers want to understand how the biological processes/microbes/life manifests so that they can tinker and innovate. They want to apply the idea of hacking to cells and organisms!

Biohackers are an eclectic community, united in utopian goals of providing an alternative to big science, ridding itself from the red tapes, patents and the monopolies of academia and industrial labs. In true hacker spirit, they preach open data, build low-cost laboratory equipment and off-the-shelf protocols.

They want do things differently, to innovate, to create using the resources at hand. You could call it citizen or do-it-your-self biology.

Biohacking is the fusion of tech optimism and biological experimentation in a non-traditional research setting, says Ethan O. Perlstein, Indie Scientist and Founder, Perlstein Lab.

Consider this scenario: Imagine there is an outbreak of salmonella in your area and thousands become ill. You are in your home or the confines of your lab having all the tools to design a simple biological test that determines if your food is contaminated with the salmonella bacteria and the tools you need to solve this problem excluding the expensive lab instruments, cost you no more than $5. It works for you, you post it on the internet, let others know about the information or protocol so that they can repeat the test, thereby potentially saving thousands or even millions of people. This is biohacking!

Biohacking in recent times

Much like the hackers in the 70s, a grassroot biohacking community has been developing world over and this group is transforming biology from a purely professional activity that requires labcoats and expensive equipments to a garage biology movement: less money, more knowledge. Something which even hobbyists and artists can do.

And yes, biohacking is not just cutting edge science, anyone who has made yoghurt at home or made rye bread, is also a biohacker- tweaking those microbes for your gastronomic pleasure!

For the next generation of biohackers, micro-organisms have become the new hardware and DNA is like the software which you can tinker with to suit your purpose. Infact, synthetic biologists see biology as something that can be engineered, and DNA as a code that can be programmed (or hacked).

Mike Flanagan, a biohack enthusiast and entrepreneur, explains “Think of E coli as an iPhone onto which you can install a never-ending variety of apps (in this case, designer genomes). The possibilities are limitless: in theory, organisms can be programmed to do just about anything – there are lifesaving pharmaceuticals, self-repairing concreteglowing plants and synthetic saffron – and for the biohacking community, tapping into their revolutionary potential has become a perceived democratic right.”

Some other interesting biohack innovations are the OpenPCR project– a low-cost DIY thermocycler; Open Insulin project– making the first open source protocol to produce insulin simply and economically; BioArt, smart Menstrual Cup; Picterus-smartphone monitoring of jaundice and many more. Infact a San francisco-based startup, Amino Labs makes a portable bioreactor for engineering cells at home!

These exciting innovations have been possible mainly due to the boom in synthetic biology, especially with technology becoming accessible to just about anyone. The dramatic fall in the cost of sequencing of DNA: in 2001, a million letters – base pairs – cost $100,000; today it’s around 10 cents has led to unprecedented growth and we may be on the verge of a biotechnology revolution! Bill Gates perfectly summarizes the hype in an interview to Wired, “Had I grown up today, I’d be hacking biology instead of computers”

Ryan Bethencourt, the CEO of Berkley Bio Labs, an epicenter of biohackers says, “Biohacking could literally change the world as we know it!”

True, but there is a lot of negative perception too about biohacking, with concerns of bioterrorism and the tendency to “play God” topping the list of fears! However, many agree the fears are sometimes dramatically overstated, with organizations actively encouraging transparency and self-regulation in the DIY biology community. For eg. Genspace, a biohacking community adheres to the Center for Disease Control’s Biosafety Level 1, working only with benign organisms like E.coli (lab strain). They believe that, if you work with pathogens, you no longer belong to the biohacker community, but the bioterrorist community!

They believe that like all technologies, synthetic biology is also subject to the “dual usage” paradox – it can be used for good and evil!

The possibility of creating open source innovations for healthcare and enabling millions in low income and developing countries has led us to the unanimous conclusion- the benefits far outweigh the risks!

Biohacks worldwide

There are various biohacking competitions which happen world over that enable hackers to showcase their innovations, like the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), a nonprofit organization and annual competition in biohacking projects ranging from bacterial sunscreen to vegan cow cheese, Bio-ideate, Asia-Pacific Biohack Competition.

Resources

Some of the biohacking communities, organizations worldwide and resources include HiveBio, Berkeley Bio Labs, BIocurious (Sunnyvale), Genspace, www.openbioprojects.net,  www.hackteria.org ,www.diybio.eu , www.biologigaragen.org and other biohack spaces around the world. The Biopython Project is an open-source collection of non-commercial Python tools for computational biology and bioinformatics.

COMPETITION

Want to biohack and create innovations in healthcare? Here is your chance! Participate in Bio-ideate Asia-Pacific Biohack Competition and stand a chance to win Grand prizes worth S$5000! Register Now!  Go to the BIO-IDEATE site! 

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