The mad scientist lurks in his garage, gleefully laughing at the petty concerns of government regulations while he chooses the next gene cluster to modify in his super-virus. A flask of last week’s experiment acts as a doorstop, one kick away from unleashing the apocalypse. Surely everyone knows that the Do-It-Yourself Biology crowd are a disaster waiting to happen?
Sounds stupid? Yes, it is, but so are many of the myths surrounding the DIYbio / biohacker movement. A disparate group of people aiming to bring biotechnology beyond academia and industry, they are supported by both the wide range of information available online and the simplicity of purchasing cheap laboratory equipment. Are they a groundswell of innovation ready to lift the synthetic biology world to new heights? Are they a hive of potential terrorists? Nobody really knew, because no-one had taken the opportunity to survey the DIYbio community. That is, at least, until the release of a survey from the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. The survey, covering 359 members of the DIYbio movement, showed that a number of the common beliefs were, well, completely wrong.
The Loner in His Basement
Although ‘Do It Yourself’ brings up images of a solitary garage worker, DIYbio people are actually quite the gregarious bunch. Over 90% of them work within group spaces, usually community labs dedicated to biotech or as smaller lab spaces within larger electronics ‘hackerspaces’ (hacker in the sense of making something inventive and clever, rather than stealing photos from your iPhone). They also tended to be well networked, corresponding with one another both in person and over forums.
A group of amateurs wasting their time, right? Wrong. Lacking those glorious industry budgets, DIYbio groups need to keep costs low – and this spurs innovative approaches to lab development. Need a cheap PCR cycler? $649 USD will get you the OpenPCR kit which you can assemble yourself. Over 40% of respondents had built some part of their lab equipment themselves, ranging from magnetic stirrers to 3D-printed pipettes. Crude, yes, but certainly inventive when it comes to research on a budget.
Despite the lack of official oversight from ethics committees, biohackers are not setting out to break laws and moral boundaries. The strong culture of sharing and collaboration is reflected in their focus on transparency: 73% of the respondents were in favour of being highly or completely open about their work – with a mere 6% opting for total privacy. Beyond this the community tends to institute their own code of ethics for members, and community labs usually screen the people which they will accept into the workspace – mad scientists in training thus need not apply.
Another common belief, that biohackers could bring about a new plague or epidemic via their work – be it accidentally or as part of a targeted bioterrorism attack. Ironically a major reason that this would not come to pass (at least at the time of publication) was a lack of knowledge – only 13% of respondents had ever synthesised a gene, the first step in bioengineering. Beyond this, the majority of those surveyed worked with ‘safe’ BSL1 organisms, only a small percentage had experience with the slightly more dangerous BSL2-level pathogens.
The possibility exists, naturally, that someone with a knowledgeable background could infiltrate a DIYbio group, use their equipment, and develop a biowarfare agent to kill the President. Why is this unlikely? First, the general culture of transparency makes it difficult to hide such a development program, particularly when most labs have a set purchasing officer who would notice out-of-the-ordinary requirements. Secondly, the majority of laboratories are designed for BS1 organisms (E. coli, for example), which is simply not sufficient to perform work with potential bioterrorism agents – and indeed would probably end up killing the would-be terrorist. Lastly, DIYbio groups are both monitored by and in communication with law enforcement groups, a process which minimises the risk of an amateur ‘going rogue’.
Benefits vs Risks
Are there risks involved in the DIYbio movement? Of course, just as there are risks involved in any sort of biological research and development. However, biohackers are not a group of mad anarchists set on bringing down society, they are academics, scientists, enthusiasts, engineers – all of whom have an interest in the future that bioengineering and synthetic biology can bring. The democratisation of computers and programming brought forth thousands of companies and currently supports a tech economy worth billions upon billions. Will the democratisation of biotechnology bring the same advances? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.