Biohacking in an Age of Innovation and Concern


Oct 23, 2013 (3 years and 5 months ago)


Biohacking in an Age of Innovation and Concern

With the onslaught of DIY

television programming

(Yard Crashers, Disaster DIY

Addict, Man Caves, etc.)

it will be obvious to all be the most reclusive hermit that
opportunities exist for the handy

Though some areas of activity lend themselves to this type of
motivated ingen
uity, other area

might not be so apparent.

The human genome was fully mapped nearly a decade ago, and since then the field of ge
engineering and
related industries ha

exploded. It might not seem
unusual, then, for the DIY
spirit to insert itself into one of the hottest areas of our mode
rn economy. Marcus Wohlsen has
documented the early stages of this movement in h
is recent release, BIOPUNK: DIY Scientists Hack the
Software of Life.

As the title implies,
geneticists have
discovered and utilized the computer software/hardware analogy to
bring this complicated subject into the

of an educated, if somewhat
, public. In any
computer, there are physical components (motherboard, processor, video cards, cables, mice, monitors,
keyboards…) and there are
instructions that programmers have inserted at various levels to allow those
physical machines to performs

tasks for humans (and possibly, non
humans, as well).

With the human
genome, the
strands of DNA are analogous to the hardware of a computer.
Each strand is comprised
millions of each of four types of nucleotides, and e
very human cell contains
an iden
tical version of this

How these individual units are arranged in
relation to one another is the important thing. The
arrangement of these


amounts to a set of instructions for many of the operations of the cell.

Once the scientist possesses
this code, she can begin to understand how
cells operate internally and
relation to one another. In the fields of biotechnology, the application of this know
ledge is li
This is evident by the significant levels of growth
in this field de
the relatively stagnant trends of the
overall economy. With continued growth, laboratories are
going to upgrade equipment to maintain a
competitive edge. What happens to the older equipment? This is where things get interesting.

Wohlsen recalls a range
of instances where individuals acquired second
hand equipment to continue
research outside of established laboratories.
According to Wohlsen, many of the machines responsible
for the earliest work in this field have become accessible to the general public
. A search on Ebay and
Craigslist reveal machines, still in serviceable condition, selling to a not
credentialed public
at a fraction of the original (grant
supported) purchase prices.
Some of the items available for under

000 include:
IS Spectrophotometer, Bacterial Spiral Plater,
PCR Thermal Cycler,
centrifuge/speed vac,

fluorometer, DNA automated sequencer.

Some of the techniques being
utilized in
these DIY labs:
testing for

with a genetic basis and designing drugs that target
cancer cells.

So many instances of these sel
started projects abound that Wohlsen

was determined to

the trend

in this novel

movement. If the movement has a political agenda, though many

consider the
term “movement” to be inappropriate to such a
loose collection of independent
minded pioneers
, it
might be encapsulated in

Meredith L. Patterson
’s “
Biopunk Manifesto

. T
he essence of her statement is
that the information and equipment related to biotechnology

should be

accessible to the public.

A computer programmer
with sympathies for the spirit of ethical hacking
, it is not surprising that
Patterson has taken an interest in the social and political issues surrounding access to biotech
By eschewing the evils that come from ignorant and
fearful lawmakers
, biohackers will
express their right to pursue inquiry and employ res
earch in self
determined directions.

The first decade of this new millennium

has seen the germination of countless new areas of
research an
d ever wider access to the tec
hniques and information related to the
mechanics of life. These years have also

presented the global community with challenges that come
m balancing freedom and security in an open society. On the one hand, regulations can hinder the
innovation and in
spiration that drive progress in any field of endeavor. On the other hand,
open access
to information could allow disaffected elements of society to implement malicious attacks

utilizing this
Two illustrations are enough to reinforce these f
ears: envelopes from t
he anthrax scare of
2001 and the
image of Colin Powell holding a vial of white powder as he made his case before the
United Nations for an invasion of Iraq

The balancing of freedom and security is as old as civilization itself
. Every innovation in our
understanding of the world requires that we update our methods for maintaining a healthy balance

between these poles. It will rem
ain an

interesting question as the
technical and rhetorical
velopments in biotechnology continue
to evolve

in the coming years

KEY WORDS: biohacking, biotechnology, DIY, biopunk,
manifesto, DNA,