What we were staring at was DNA from a piece of fish we had bought from our local sushi restaurant. The gene is called COX1, and is found in mitochondria, the energy-converting machines found in the cells of all higher life forms. Scientists call this gene the barcode of life, as its makeup varies slightly but noticeably between species. If we had more sophisticated equipment, or were ready to pay a service laboratory, we could have deciphered the code a bit more, and seen which kind of fish it was from. Amateur scientists had done this before, for example, high-school students in New York found several cases of sushi restaurants selling mislabelled fish.
For us, though, it was enough to know that we could test what was inside our food. Our experiment was the proof of principle we had been looking for. The next step was to see what else was possible in a home lab, and so we turned to our own genes.
That’s where we hit the first legal barrier. Analysing sushi doesn’t contravene any laws, but analysing human genes might. Clause no. 7 of Germany’s Genetic Diagnostics Law, passed in 2009, states that only physicians are allowed to do “diagnostic genetic testing”. One of the law's main objectives is to protect any individual from having their personal genetic information exploited. It's not that clear cut, though. There is also the entitlement to informational self-determination, which the German constitutional court has defined as a basic right. We decided to take the value of this basic right above the letter of the law. After all, we didn’t want to look into other people's genes – just our own.
After much discussion, we decided not to look at genes related to disease, agreeing this is best left to trained doctors. But there were other areas we could look at in our genome, using the same methods and principles. For example, there’s one gene which, depending on what version you inherit, may make you more likely to be a good sprinter or a good long-distance runner. The gene in question is ACTN-3, or alpha-actinin-3, and it’s active in skeletal muscle. Two of us had memories of our high school athletics performances – one was more of a Usain Bolt, the other more like Mo Farah. So we isolated DNA from two saliva samples. We amplified the DNA with our PCR machine. We looked around on the internet and bought an enzyme that cuts the mutated version of the gene in two places, but the normal version only once. We saw different patterns in the gel: the Usain Bolt-type of us appeared to carry the intact ACTN-3 version, whereas the Mo Farah-like runner showed the signs of a tiny, but important mutation which might give endurance runners an edge.
So, after checking the DIY box for food analysis, we ticked the one for human genetic testing. The third step was the most serious. We wanted to explore the security and safety aspects of the biohacker movement.
Within a few days, a courier for a biotech company arrived at our office, looking a little surprised that the delivery address wasn’t a working lab. He handed us a package that cost us 23.73 euros. Within it were two tubes containing DNA, whose codes spelled out the beginning and end of the gene for a powerful botanical toxin. It’s usually produced by the castor oil plant, Ricinus communis, but is better known as ricin. As a quarter of a milligramme is enough to kill a heavyweight boxer, it's officially a bioweapon according to the United Nations, and US counterterrorism officials fear al Qaeda members in Yemen are trying to produce bombs containing the toxin.