Biohacking- It’s Not About Creating Frankenstein

If you open up the science and you allow diverse groups to participate, it could really stimulate innovation.
-Ellen Jorgenson founder of Genspace

DNA code sequencing is getting easier, cheaper, and more consumer friendly; it’s a no longer just practiced in a government lab. Science regularly offers breakthroughs and innovations, like in embryonic stem cell research and the development of genetic code editing techniques. The field of biotechnology is spreading globally, with the goals of eliminating fossil fuels, creating more tools for early disease detection and revolutionizing medicine. At its very core, biotechnology represents civic media and civic engagement. Biotech harnesses biomolecular and cellular processes to develop technologies and products to help the public improve their lives and the health of our planet. “Heal the World”, “Fuel the world” and “Feed the World” are phrases often associated with biotech.

But not everyone has access to the amazing technological and social innovations that biotechnology offers. Many labs and projects are ran and owned by the government and operate under strict and often private regulations. Companies like 23andMe charge close to $200 for testing a consumer’s genes and ancestry, and while there are debates regarding the accuracy of the company’s testing methods, the cost is often a deterrent for many who want to understand where they come from on a genetic level. There is also the issue of DNA privacy and 23andMe selling consumer genetic information to third parties for testing.This led to the birth of the biohacking movement, aimed at bringing science back to the community and increasing science literacy among the public.

Do it Yourself Biology, or DIY Bio, is a citizen driven science movement aimed at granting everyone access to high tech tools and encouraging openness in the field in of science.

Rob Carlson developed the idea of the biohacking movement in 2005 while he was working at Brenner’s Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California. He had the idea that biology is technology, and that citizen scientists, biologists and hackers could come together and innovate a field largely dominated by government regulations, private labs and large corporations. On May 1, 2005, Carlson wrote an article for Wired titled “Splice it Yourself”. He told readers that “the era of garage biology is upon us. Want to participate? Take a moment to buy yourself a molecular biology lab on eBay” (Splice, Carlson). Carlson did just that: he set up his garage as a lab and began working on projects he had started in Berkley. In 2008, the DIYbio Organization was founded Jason Bobe and Mackenzie Cowell. This organization provides a code of ethics for citizen scientists, encouraging transparency with research methods; the adaptation of safe practices; educating the public in biotechnology, its benefits and implications; listening and communicating with the community; respecting humans and all living organisms; and using biotech research for peaceful purposes. The DIYbio organization also connects people with local DIY bio groups all over the United States, and keeps members updated on current projects.

A similar organization called Genspace opened in 2010 in Brooklyn, New York. This nonprofit believes the best way to inform the public about science is to have its stakeholders understand it from a hands-on perspective. Dedicated to promoting science literacy and open access to biotechnology, Genspace provides STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) educational outreach, lab access to members, education in bioart and biodesign, and acts as a forum for dialogue about the social and ethical dimensions of biotech.

The field of biotechnology encompasses the idea that science is a tool to improve our lives and the planet. DIY bio brings that idea to the public, allowing stakeholders such as citizen scientists, journalists, biologists, entrepreneurs and hackers to develop projects aimed at increasing science literacy and improving our lives. In fact, science writer Ana Delgado describes the DIY bio movement as unique and new way of doing science that everyone can engage in. “It is generally accepted that DIY-Bio does not represent new science but a new way of doing science – ‘a different way of engaging with science and technology, and with the making of things and futures’” (DIY Bio, Delgado). The DIY bio movement has three major influencers, which all relate to the ideas that we have discussed in this course. Firstly, DIY bio approach is one that encourages amateurs to practice science at home for improvement. Secondly, the movement encourages an atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration between people from all different fields and professional focuses. Third, according to Alessandro Delfanti, in his book Tweaking Genes in Your Garage: Biohacking between Activism and Entrepreneurship, “ DIY-Bio represents a direct translation of free software and hacking practices from the realm of computers and software into the realm of genes en cells” (Tweaking Genes, Delfanti). The basic ideas outlined above promote the idea of science as technology aimed at improving our society and our planet.

Works Cited:

  1. Carlson R. ‘Splice it yourself: who needs a geneticist? Build your own DNA lab’. 2005.
  2. Delgado A. DIYbio: making things and making futures. Futures. 2013;48:65–73. doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2013.02.004.
  3. Delfanti A. ‘Tweaking genes in your garage: biohacking between activism and entrepreneurship.’ In: W Sützl and Th Hug (eds). Activist media and biopolitics. Critical media interventions in the age of biopower (163–177). Innsbruck University Press; 2012.

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