Is biohacking an exciting science or a terrifying threat? Should the average person be concerned about biohacking? Most people have never even heard of the phenomenon of biohacking and have no idea of its potential to change the world.
Another term for biohacking could be DIY biology (do it yourself biology) because it takes place outside of large, established research labs. Some scientists worry that it also takes place outside the purview of peer review and guidelines on ethics and safety. Proponents of biohacking believe that citizens have the right to experiment, discover, invent and develop in their own homes and garages and labs.
Biohacking often deals with DNA and genes and using living materials to solve problems. For example, one group is creating bio-luminescent plants that could light pathways instead of using electricity. Other biohackers experiment with enhancing the human body with scientific research to improve health.
Biohacking labs have sprung up around the United States where biohackers can collaborate on research, ideas and technology. Ron Shigeta, who runs Berkley Biolabs in California, says that biohacking entails a freedom to experiment and create. “The whole idea of biohacking is that people feel entitled, they feel the ability to just follow their curiosity – where it should go – and really get to the bottom of something they want to understand.” The typical biohacker wants the freedom to explore a passion, not be dictated to by the goals or financial concerns of a large lab or university. Ellen Jorgensen of Genspace states, “Our goal is not only to advance biology, but democratize it.”
Dave Aspey, a computer security tech, takes biohacking in a personal direction. He believes that being able to study oneself on a genetic level provides access to one’s own human system never before granted. He experiments with special supplements and electrical stimulation to improve cognitive functions and muscles.
Biohacking is moving into the mainstream. Stanford University built a new lab dedicated to synthetic biology, the formal term for biohacking. It allows students and scientists to pursue their curiosity. Drew Endy, a professor at Stanford University says, “hacking is a positive term. It means learning about stuff by building, and trying to make things and seeing what happens.” The idea of learning by doing is appealing. It speeds up science and innovation. On the other hand, biohackers may not always be prepared for the consequences of unleashing their creations on the world.
Biohacking is a new, less formal way of practicing biology that lets people with and without training practice hands-on biology. Some of the projects being developed in biohacking labs are inspiring. In Berkley they are exploring how to make batteries out of algae. Plants are essentially energy storage. How can people use that energy to power technology instead of relying on toxic chemical? Philip Ross is making sustainable building materials out of mushrooms. He feeds his mushrooms sawdust and peanut shaving and grows them into shaped containers. The mushrooms become a solid mass that can be used to create furniture or bricks. Endy says biohackers want to partner with life to make the things people need and build materials that are sustainable
Biohacking laboratories are filled with would-be scientists hoping to make that next big discovery that will change the world. Endy is convinced that the natural world provides models for people to create ways to be more productive and efficient. Established science is also beginning to turn to the natural world for inspiration, but biohacking has the advantage of being less restrictive and more creative.
At BioCurious in the Silicon Valley scientists are experimenting with bioprinting. They use a modified ink-jet printer to produce biological results. It seems similar to plastic 3D printing, except at BioCurious they print life through polymerase chain reactions. Where could the technology go? What if they could use stem cells and a printer to grow personalized body parts for those awaiting transplants?
Biohacking has its detractors. Some scientists believe it is irresponsible and likely to cause a catastrophe. If biohacking experiments inadvertently get out into the world they could wreck havoc on natural environments. There is no way of knowing if the labs are creating something dangerous until the damage is done.
Is biohacking a innovative movement that puts science into the hands of more citizens or does it carry the potential for disaster? Is it exciting science or a terrifying threat? Will it change the world?
By: Rebecca Savastio