Blog by Chris Berry
In bedrooms, garages and lock-ups from the USA to Europe and Asia, a new approach to life sciences is taking shape. Working individually or as collectives, “biohackers” – citizen scientists operating outside the constraints of academic or commercial biology labs – seek to adapt the genetic code of organisms such as bacteria, in order to modify the way these behave.
Yet what leads people to participate in this DIY-bio movement? Will it empower amateur biological scientists to make important breakthroughs that will benefit society, or are there dangers and threats associated with such unregulated genetic tinkering? Or is DIY-bio nothing more than an interesting hobby making only a limited contribution to progressing scientific understanding?
These were some of the issues debated during DIY-Bio: Empowerment or Anarchy? – the first of three Genomics Forum produced events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 2012 programme. Judging by the significant audience the event attracted, there certainly appears to be considerable interest in issues associated with DIY-Bio. Queue the event chair – Forum Writer-in-Residence, Pippa Goldschmidt - taking a quick straw-poll as to the number of biohackers present, resulting in the raising of just a couple of hands.
The dearth of a citizen scientist presence provided an ideal opportunity for event panellist and Forum Bright Ideas Fellow, Alessandro Delfanti, to provide a potted history on DIY-Bio and biohacking. Alessandro – who will soon publish a book entitled Biohackers – explained how the DIY-bio movement originated in the USA, being established by those who wanted to undertake experimentation that was not subject to the constraints imposed by academic or commercial life science labs. Key to the viability of such DIY-Bio labs has been the dramatic reduction in the cost of equipment – such as DNA sequencers – as a result of surplus hardware being disposed of by commercial labs, or some biohackers using online instruction manuals to make facsimiles of commercial machines from readily available parts.
In less than a decade, DIY-Bio has enabled PhD students, and those less formally qualified in life sciences, from across the globe to manipulate genomes, even buying specific genetic “bricks” (sequences of DNA that code for certain cellular functions) by mail-order. But will this apparent “democratisation” of science bring dramatic and significant benefits to society? Possibly not, was the opinion of Innogen-based sociologist of the life sciences, Jane Calvert.
Arguing that, compared to commercial life sciences, DIY-Bio was not sufficiently resourced to undertake the “big” research usually needed to achieve significant breakthroughs, Jane did point out that DIY-Bio nonetheless has the potential to engage and inform society with regard to the life sciences. This was illustrated with the example of the performance artist who claimed to have used DIY-Bio to engineer yoghurt that produced Prozac. The concept of a mood enhancing breakfast was seized upon by the media. The claim, it transpires, was false – part of the artistic concept – but succeeded in drawing significant attention to home-based synthetic biology.
A different assessment of the significance of DIY-Bio was taken by Ben Hammersley, editor-at-large of Wired magazine UK, who drew comparison between the evolution of the IT industry, and the way in which open source programming (where anyone can access and change a programme’s code) is beginning to challenge industry giants such as Microsoft and Apple. As Ben identified, DNA is merely a form of coded information, similar to the binary code that runs computers, so why should it not be open to manipulation by anyone possessing the skills to achieve this.
During questions from the audience, the ethical issues and threats potentially associated with DIY-Bio were raised. The panel agreed that whilst DIY-Bio needed to be undertaken in such a way as it didn’t present a risk to those carrying it out, it was highly unlikely that someone would be able to produce a bio-weapon in their bedroom. It was mentioned that the DIY-Bio movement is very aware of the public perception of the risks it may present and therefore in the US, and has even worked collaboratively with the FBI. The public also seems concerned by the term “bio-hacker”, equating it with malicious activity undertaken by computer hackers. Alessandro made an interesting point in relation to this, indicating that the original meaning of the term “hacker” referred to someone who liked to dismantle a machine or computer to see how it worked, and potentially improve it. This is very much the ethos of biohackers and DIY-Bio enthusiasts, albeit working with cells rather than computers.
The very lively session drew to a close with the panel considering whether DiY-Bio was indeed “proper” science, where experiments are undertaken, data collected, and the experiment is then repeated to verify results. There was some consensus that DIY-Bio is perhaps currently more akin to engineering – with people effectively using a biological Meccano kit to develop and assemble tweaked genomes. This is potentially producing divisions between “pure” life scientists and DIY-biologists, similar to those seen in the IT arena, where academic computer scientists sometimes frown upon the practices of bedroom programmers and coders. However Ben concluded that, with enough participants, DIY-Bio has the potential to plant the seeds which might lead to new approaches and innovations in relation to life sciences. As the IT world has shown us, it may be academic IT practitioners who are undertaking the purest science, but it is the amateur innovators of the likes of Facebook who are now worth billions.