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.”
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.