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.
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).