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.