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.
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.