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In Depth

Becoming biohackers: Learning the game

About the author

Hanno Charisius, Richard Friebe and Sascha Karberg are science writers living in Berlin (RF and SK) and Munich (HC). The full account of their experiments will be published in German in February 2013 under the title of Biohacking: Gentechnik aus der Garage (Genetic Engineering from the Garage), and an English e-book version is also in the works.

How we became biohackers – part 1

(Copyright: Thinkstock; Hanno Charisius, Richard Friebe and Sascha Karberg)

More and more amateur biologists are carrying out genetic experiments in homes and garages worldwide. How easy is it to do? Three writers decided to find out.

Read parts two and three of this biohacking story

When you have lunch courtesy of the FBI, you are offered chicken Caesar salad, hamburger or fish. Soft drinks are extra. Throughout our two-day visit we were happy to dine on FBI hamburgers and Caesar salad, but declined the seafood option. The atmosphere seemed fishy enough.

We were in Walnut Creek, California, at the invitation of agent Nathaniel Head. He is a nice guy with a pleasant demeanour; there’s no furtive spy-like behaviour or obvious demonstration of power. He may be dressed in a smart khaki suit and striped tie (red, white and blue, of course), but he acts more like a professor. And thanks to a university background in microbiology, he is able to talk knowledgably about science. Head spared no effort in making us feel at ease, and the other agents present tried to do the same – all wide smiles and “glad-to-have-you-heres”.

But despite this bonhomie, sitting in the windowless conference room in the basement of a nondescript hotel building in Walnut Creek still left us feeling uncomfortable. And it wasn’t just because there was a palpable Big Brother atmosphere in the room. Instead, we were acutely aware that we must have done something to bring us to the attention of Head; someone whose area of expertise is weapons of mass destruction.

But we don't smuggle plutonium. We don’t supply chemical weapons. We don’t build rockets.

Instead, we have a hobby that the FBI believes could be so dangerous that they have come up with a special programme to make sense of it. That hobby is to play with genes, proteins and bacteria in our spare time in a homemade lab we constructed from scratch. We are part of a rapidly growing community of amateur geneticists, who are often labelled biopunks, or outlaw biologists. Or, better still, in an analogy to the computer programming enthusiasts of a generation ago, some call us biohackers. But instead of software code, we try to tinker with DNA, the code of life.

And we’re far from alone. For several years a growing number of do-it-yourself biologists around the world have been carrying out the sorts of experiments that, until recently, were only possible in professional labs.

Now, in an attempt to keep track of what’s going on, the FBI has set up the Biological Countermeasures Unit, which Nathaniel Head is a part of. One of their goals in preventing acts of terrorism is to reach out to leading names in the field to quiz them about what they do. Which is how we ended up in Walnut Creek, as part of a workshop involving FBI agents and around 30 of the most prominent members of the growing DIYbio movement.

Acid test

This movement has become possible being because the techniques used in molecular biology have become simpler and cheaper. A couple of decades ago, it took three years to learn how to clone and sequence a gene, and you earned a PhD in the process. Now, thanks to ready-made kits you can do the same in less than three days. Specialised materials and second-hand equipment are much more affordable, not to mention more available. Machines for amplifying DNA can now be purchased online, whilst enzymes and chemicals for creating, manipulating and sticking together DNA can be ordered off the shelf. The cost of sequencing DNA has plummeted, from about $100,000 for reading a million letters, or base pairs, of DNA code in 2001, to around 10 cents today.

So, in theory, there is now nothing to stop someone from constructing a lab, donning a white coat and becoming an amateur genetic detective – especially three science writing friends from Berlin and Munich with university degrees in biology (though admittedly we’d earned these more than a dozen years ago).

Or is there? That was what we wanted to find out. Could we manipulate and analyse genes like professional scientists do? Could we break into cells and hack their DNA? Would we be able to transfer this material from one basic organism to another? How far would we be willing to test the ethical or legal issues surrounding this work? Or is biohacking just another fad that is too tricky and laborious to ever take off beyond the level of geek-driven enthusiasm?

More than two years ago, we set out to build a lab for ourselves to see what was possible and to help us understand this burgeoning field. When we started, we were not aware of any DIY biologists in our native Germany; biohackers were (and still are) mostly in the US.

Since then, biohacker communities have popped up around the globe, with hundreds of do-it-yourself biologists testing their experimental prowess. Visit one of the many online forums dedicated to the field and you will find thousands willing to join the movement, all eager to try and engineer DNA in their kitchen or garage labs. Like home chefs scouring and testing recipes available on the web, biohackers use freely downloadable protocols to clone genes in bacteria. You can, for example, make bacteria glow in the dark – just for fun.

But back in 2010, there was no thriving virtual community, no convenient how-to guides for the curious. So, on a cloudy morning in April we found ourselves on a plane heading to the US for the first of several road trips to meet the leading lights of the biohacking community and ask if they could help us out.

Bedroom genetics

One of the first people to open their doors to us was Kay Aull. A superstar of the biohacking world, Aull rose to prominence after building her own genetic testing kit in the small room she used to live in as a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In her makeshift lab, she analysed a specific gene mutation linked to a disease her father was diagnosed with, called haemochromatosis. If you have it, the body is unable to get rid of excess iron. With relatively simple – and cheap – tests, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate found both the faulty gene from her dad and the unaffected one, inherited from her mother, in her own DNA. The result meant she is a carrier but unlikely to contract the disease.

When we first met Aull, she shared an apartment in the Cambridgeport area near MIT with other students and her three cats. With bobbed hair, glasses, and wearing a skiing vest, she looked like the picture-perfect nerd, but we soon discovered an inviting, open-minded person with an engaging attitude.

After opening pleasantries, she led us to her bedroom, with nosy cats following, and proudly opened her closet door to reveal her $500 genetic engineering lab. Chemical reagents, syringes, Petri dishes, pipette tips and Erlenmeyer flasks sat on the top shelf, next to a pile of T-shirts. A power supply and a home-made lightbox that makes DNA visible were neatly arranged below. On the bottom shelf, was a vintage block-like contraption for copying DNA that showed its 10-year age by the noise of its ventilation system whenever it was turned on.

Aull decided to investigate her own genetic legacy when her father was first diagnosed with haemochromatosis. He was given pages and pages of documents packed with scientific jargon that he was “unable to make sense of”. Frustrated, she decided “to show people in a similar situation that genetic testing is not magic” – that it is a routine technique just like an oil change for a car.

Her apartment-turned-lab was testimony to that, and to the innovative spirit which underpins biohacking. To get samples of cells swabbed from her cheek to pop open and release their DNA Aull did nothing more sophisticated than heat them in a saucepan of boiling water in her kitchen. Her second-hand equipment made over a million copies of the gene that might carry the haemochromatosis mutation. And to visualise the amplified DNA to see if the gene carried a mutation, she used blue Christmas tree lights instead of the expensive high-end trans-illuminators that professional labs use.

If this sounds like the kind of thing you should probably not be doing alongside your pot of pasta, Aull reassured us her experiments were harmless. Her test? She only used materials that would do no harm to her cats if they inadvertently encountered anything.

Aull embodies the common purpose that drives most people in the biohacking world. Many do not just want to play with something new. Instead, they share an impulse to empower themselves, and to not leave everything to the experts. They are happy to show novices the fruits of their labours. It was an enlightened vision of the democratisation of science.

Yet it is impossible to avoid the negative connotations of this utopian outlook. Mention scare stories, and the name of Steve Kurtz will undoubtedly crop up. When we visited the arts professor at the State University of New York, he still had vivid memories of the day in May 2004 when the FBI, accompanied by a special anti-bioterror unit, raided his house in Buffalo, NY. His wife Hope had died at home the previous day. Kurtz called 911. When the paramedics arrived at the scene, they saw Petri dishes with bacterial cultures. “They were looking at this stuff, and thought maybe I killed her by some kind of biochemical toxin,” recalled Kurtz. Next day, the grieving Kurtz, on his way to making arrangements for his wife's funeral, was detained by the FBI and interrogated for 22 hours as a bioterrorism suspect. His cat was confiscated on the suspicion it was being used as a vector for spreading a deadly infection in the neighbourhood, though Kurtz said he found it locked up in the attic when he returned.

It was a false alarm in the most tragic of circumstances. Hope had died from heart failure. The bacteria in the house were part of a video installation project called Marching Plague, a re-creation of a 1952 British military experiment in which guinea pigs were infected with bubonic plague to see how fast it would spread. The bacteria Kurtz used was harmless with no more potential for harm than the mould growing on a lump of Roquefort – Kurtz said he even licked some off the Petri dishes in front of the agents to make the point. But it took four years for Kurtz to be acquitted of all the charges. “You would think that I would be feeling light as a feather and dancing down the street,” said Kurtz at the time of acquittal. “Quite the opposite; it's more like having some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Community support

It is from these underground, sometimes disorganized, often misunderstood roots that biohacking has started to become more mainstream in recent years. No longer is it just confined to basements, garages and kitchens. Instead, so-called biohacker spaces have begun to spring up, such as Genspace in Brooklyn, New York. Set up 2010 and supported and advised by a scientific board that includes the eminent geneticist George Church at Harvard Medical School, Genspace is a state-of-the-art laboratory where everyone from aspiring to advanced biohackers can experiment for a fee of $100 per month. There’s no need for someone to buy their own vintage equipment, no need to repair it themselves and no need to cultivate bacteria in their kitchen. And there is always someone around who can help – the biohackers at the next bench, or one of the professional bioscientists running the lab.

Its president is Ellen Jorgensen, whose enthusiastic greeting suggested she takes the labs motto – “remember the time when science was fun” to heart. “The advantage of community labs is that what you attempt to do doesn't have to be economically or medically important, it can be anything you want,” said Jorgensen, an experienced geneticist, and probably the world's most prominent voice behind the DIYbio movement. “But then, the thing that really hooks you in the end is the enthusiasm. People are doing this by choice, they are not doing it because they have to make a living out of it, they are doing it because they have a passion for science.”

For instance, one artist there was experimenting with bacteria that can produce “beautiful patterns”, using different nutrients which make colonies grow in specific ways and change colour. Another group was preparing balloons to be sent into the stratosphere to detect traces of DNA from unknown bacterial species that might be floating up there.

The seeds of the DIYbio movement were sown in 2003 at MIT with a programme called iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine). The following year, it hosted the first of its annual competitions, where teams of high-school and college students are given “BioBricks” – chunks of genes with standardised structures and known functions which they can tinker with and build upon. They get their name because they are like genetic Lego pieces.

Some of the results of these experiments are impressive: teams have created a designer vaccine against the bug that causes most ulcers, Helicobacter pylori; turned bacterial cells into hemoglobin-producing blood substitutes; and converted bacteria into tiny “sniffer dogs” which can detect rotten meat. iGEM has become so successful that it was recently spun out from MIT to form an independent non-profit organisation hosting regional play-offs in Europe and Asia. Last year’s competition hosted 190 teams and over 3,000 participants from 34 countries.

Its popularity helped see biohacking spread. For instance, in Sunnyvale, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, a hackerspace called Biocurious opened its doors in the summer of 2011, thanks to donations raised through the crowdsourcing funding platform Kickstarter. Back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there’s the Boston Open Source Science Lab (BOSSLab) in a nerd shelter called Sprout. In Baltimore, a hackerspace called BUGSS recently emerged thanks to an iGEM team from a local community college.

Many of these enthusiasts are also working out clever ways to make inexpensive tools. BOSSLab’s founder, Mac Cowell, used to offer an amateur genetic testing kit via the internet and his new goal is to sell entire DIYbio starter kits. Biocurious members Tito Jankowski and Josh Perfetto are building cheap machines for PCR (polymerase chain reaction), the all-important method to amplify large amounts of identical pieces of DNA from tiny samples.

The ideas, energy and drive behind these people are reminiscent of the early computer pioneers who built the software and hardware that kick-started the computer revolution, and went on to found household names like Microsoft and Apple. So, it’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to see that the next generation of entrepreneurs could be biologists, not programmers. In fact, during our US road trip Microsoft's founder Bill Gates told Wired magazine that, if he were young today, he “would be hacking biology, creating artificial life with DNA synthesis”. Creating artificial life with DNA synthesis is similar to machine-language programming, he added. “If you want to change the world in some big way, that’s where you should start – biological molecules.”

All of this left us determined to find out for ourselves. As our plane back to Germany touched down, we looked at each other's red eyes. “Let's do it ourselves,” we said on that gloomy Frankfurt morning – a phrase that would be repeated time and time again in the weeks and months that followed.

How we set about building our lab from scratch, and took the first steps to becoming biohackers will be the subject of the next part of the story; why we ended up in a room with FBI agents, and what this told us about the future of the field, will be the subject of the third and final part.

The full account of the authors’ experiments will be published in Biohacking: Gentechnik aus der Garage (Genetic Engineering from the Garage), and an English e-book version is also planned. If you would like to comment on this article or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.