Biohackers: are they friends or foes?

Biohacking and exploiting genetic potential is slowly becoming a hobbyist activity as well as an academic one Image credit: Stuart Caie


Image credit: Stuart Caie

As defined by Wikipedia, biohacking is “the practice of engaging in biology with the hacker ethic”. Some moral values and philosophies commonly associated with the hacking community are the open sharing of information, collaboration and decentralisation of knowledge. The movement is attributed to Steven Levy, who wrote a book in 1984 called Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. In this, he describes the hacker ethic, which also lists world improvement as a general principle.

A simple Google search reveals that there are labs providing workspace for biohackers throughout the world. They are situated all over Europe, America, South America and Asia. Individuals pay a fee to use these open access labs. Some are academics with a scientific background but most are novices. With rapid advancements in technology, particularly in the molecular field, come falling prices of equipment for genome sequence and manipulation. So, should we be worried about what these ‘underground’ labs are getting up to?

For now the answer seems to be a resounding no. Standard lab equipment such as centrifuges are still budget-busting for the amount of funding these labs get. The most basic model costs over £1,000. This means that many projects taking place in the labs aim to make hardware such as gel electrophoresis machines and magnetic spin plates at lower costs. Reagents such as antibodies, solvents and enzymes are expensive and time consuming to make as a one-man mission. The first hurdle, however, would be sourcing and storing them correctly.

The machines that are capable of isolating genes of interest and obtaining DNA are few and far between in laboratories, so progress is very slow. The creation of a deadly super-bacterium to be set free from carelessness or as an act of evil is impossible since the labs are technologically limited and their use of hazardous substances is very tightly regulated. The chances of someone getting their hands on a lethal strain are negligible.

laboratory

Image credit: Saint Louis University Madrid Campus

Most importantly, the principle of community and openness means that the results that come out of these labs are shared with the public, mainly through social media. A search through any of their websites lists current, past and future projects as well as contacts and links to Twitter feeds or Facebook pages. We should be working with these labs to make science more accessible, more engaging and encouraging the larger, better funded labs to do the same.

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