A recent news item in Nature‘s web site goes into a fairly long description of the biohackers, and the the title of the article tells it all: Garage biotech: Life hackers. So what is life hacking? Do it yourself molecular biology, viewing biological systems as equivalent to electronic or software systems. It looks to me right now that it’s at the DNA equivalent of phone hacking. That’s not an exact metaphor, but garage labs are created by those just as hacking-oriented as the early phone phreakers. Biopunk – more than John’s novels.
I used to be a pretty decent molecular biologist, and I’ve shot DNA into cells using a Gene Gun, turned them green, blue, and otherwise had cells do things that Nature (not the publishing group) never intended. I first chopped up DNA and put it back together in the early 1980s, and the ease with which it can be done now, the difference in those 30 years, is astounding. The technology and techniques keep getting easier, and the cost keeps going down. It wasn’t long before someone started viewing DNA, and all the subsequent biological processes controlled by it, as an artist’s pallet. Life hacking as art prompted an ethical debate with the green fluorescent bunny, a transgenic rabbit that expresses a naturally fluorescing protein originally found in jellyfish. It brought in the law when artist Steve Kurtz was arrested for having a home molecular biology lab, and accused of being a bioterrorist.
In fact, that threat of bioterrorism doesn’t seem to alarm the powers that be, these days. According to the Nature article, the FBI has more of a “let them self-police” attitude about DIY biologists. Part of me wonders, though. It doesn’t take a chemistry degree to make the mother of satan, but the “engineers” who make the explosive for suicide bombers lose fingers, hands, lives. When the anthrax letters killed people in 2001, I remember thinking that I could easily write a list of what to watch for if someone was building a home lab that would allow them to create weaponized anthrax spores without actually killing themselves and everyone around them. Look for the guy who buys cases of bleach, for one thing.
I don’t know what I think about this small subculture of biohacking. I could argue that my academic training biases me toward thinking that these tools should only be in the hands of experts. I used these tools as a matter of my trade for enough years, that I wouldn’t take it up again as a hobby. But I do remember just how cool it can be, and I hope they have fun.