Biohacking – Genetic Engineering Comes Home

Written by John Allan.
Edited by Will Stanley.

You might not have noticed, but we are at an unprecedented moment in the history of biotechnology. Long segments of DNA, the code for life, can now be artificially made to order, the cost of DNA is continuously dropping, and the uses of synthetic DNA are broadening in lock-step. But who is using it?

When the year 2000 turned the Y2K bug wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – but an entirely different millennium bug was created. An engineered bacterium, an E. coli strain, was produced by a pair of scientists at the MIT, that had a predictable and entirely man-made behaviour – once every two and a half hours it flashed green. But what made it tick? A collection of genes and other genetic elements encoded on synthetic DNA made the first synthetic gene circuit.  In other words, a circuit was designed and made, synthesised if you will, whose activity was intrinsically biological.

How to write DNA: on the left, all of the genetic parts required to make green glowing bacteria. On the right the effects, a colony of E. coli bacteria modified to contain DNA encoded as on the left. This is a common practice in synthetic biology and biohacking.

Since then, the field of “synthetic biology” has developed. In this exciting area of research, cells from microbes to human tissues in Petri dishes have been genetically engineered to have novel properties to solve problems for the modern era. The technologies that have been developed, are becoming significant contributors to the economy and to human quality of life. Using this technology, bread baking yeast has been genetically upgraded to produce pharmaceuticals and gut microbes have been engineered to augment and monitor our health.

So far, these synthetic organisms have been developed in academic and commercial laboratories, however the potential of this technology is spilling out into the public domain. The age of DNA technology is beginning to echo the early “hacker” ethos and movement of computer science in the 1970s and 80s. Imagine the dotcom boom happening with living organisms.

This has given birth to a global community of “biohackers”. This term encompasses groups performing genetic engineering and synthetic biology in their own homes and communities, as well as those augmenting their bodies and health with electronic components or other health practices. Let’s focus on the genetic engineers here.

They’re a varied bunch. Some have broken out of conventional laboratory settings to bring this technology to the people, and others have obtained this mastery of DNA independently.

One of the earliest community bio labs is Genspace in New York. Genspace is a commercial enterprise offering training in biology and genetic engineering to the public, as well as space to carry out their own projects. At Genspace, regulations are implemented, and respect is given to the power of genetic engineering. This is morally enshrined in the DIYBio code of ethics. Other similar enterprises are springing up across the globe, and other community groups are following the mantra of responsible, independent and extra-institutional biotechnology.

Attendees at the Biofabricate conference in 2014 held at Genspace, NYC.

In parallel to groups like Genspace, others are striking out on their own, with scratch-built biotech labs in garage spaces. There are growing resources available to independent biohackers, for example reagents can be bought from The ODIN project, protocols  (the cookbook recipes of scientific methods) from openwetware, and equipment can be sourced as simply as from eBay.

Synthetic biology has the power to reshape our world in the same way that computers do. The reason the digital revolution was so powerful though was the access that people had and continue to have to it. Today, anyone with a laptop can become a software engineer, but it takes thousands of pounds-worth of equipment to begin performing genetic engineering. The open access nature of hacker culture needs to be preserved in the coming wave of DNA technologies. These are technologies which harness the basic molecular unit of our existence, and could shape our future in ways we cannot yet foresee. For that reason, access to DNA technologies must be given to the public, instead of being locked behind the doors of powerful corporations.

An important note is that genetically engineered organisms strictly must be contained. This is legally and morally enshrined by many biohackers. While synthetic organisms have the power to solve some of our problems, they may also begin to cause them. An escaped engineered microbe may pose a threat to naturally occurring ecosystems which we cannot predict, leading to environmental destruction. And our species has been responsible for enough of that.

The variety of attitudes to biosecurity though is worrying. Some of these independent genetic engineers have been shrouded in controversy for their somewhat nihilistic attitude towards bioethics and biosecurity. In conventional academic laboratories and pharmaceutical labs, extensive experiments must be performed, and ethical approval must be justified and sought before experimentation on human or animal subjects. The approach of some DIY bioengineers can allow people to work outside this sphere of oversight. And is that ok?

Its easy to feel threatened by the potential here. It sounds like anyone with a PayPal account might become a home brew bioterrorist, especially when we hear about biohackers that “encoded malware in synthetic DNA”. There might be a blurred line to be drawn here between hobbyists and hazards. There is no sphere of regulation or oversight for DIY bio labs utilising this technology, posing the possibility of would-be engineers harming themselves or others with their productions. At large however, the community has done a good job of self-regulating, and we are yet to see significant human harm caused by their work.

The new generation biohackers are trained with a mantra of biotechnology for the common good. iGEM is a global organisation and competition for genetic engineers from all backgrounds. Everyone from high school students, community groups and university students every year compete with their designs to solve problems in their communities and elsewhere using biotech. All genetic parts and designs are made publicly available in the iGEM Registry of Standard Parts, and a library of the most useful of these parts is shipped out to all teams participating each year.

Biosecurity and “Human Practices” are cornerstones of the iGEM competition. Some teams will aim to solve certain biosecurity problems, and others aim to solve problems in their own community, and their work is done with direct contribution from community stakeholders.

Attitudes like this are echoed in the Biosummit congress of DIYbio groups from around the world. Alumni from the iGEM competition are graduating to start their own biotech companies, enter academic labs and bring up the next generation through new DIYbio labs and continued iGEM participation. We can’t predict yet what exciting and innovative things they will create and how they will change our world, but instilling this ethos of security and sharing will ensure it is for the benefit of us all.

About the author:

John is a microbiologist.  He completed his PhD in 2019 in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University.  He now works as a postdoctoral researcher in Hub for Biotechnology and the Built Environment and is based at Northumbria University.

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