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Becoming biohackers: The experiments begin

About the author

Hanno Charisius, Richard Friebe and Sascha Karberg are science writers living in Berlin (RF and SK) and Munich (HC). The full account of their experiments will be published in German in February 2013 under the title of Biohacking: Gentechnik aus der Garage (Genetic Engineering from the Garage), and an English e-book version is also in the works.

Becoming biohackers: The experiments begin

(Copyright: Thinkstock)

When three writers donned lab coats to see how easy it is to create a home-made lab for genetic experiments, it tested their limits of frustration and the law.

Read part one and three of this biohacking story 

It’s amazing what you can buy on eBay nowadays. Scan down the main categories, past Antiques, Art, Baby and Books, Comics & Magazines, and you’ll find the Business, Office & Industrial section. Click on it and you will see various subcategories, including one for Medical/Lab Equipment. This, as you’ll discover, is a biohacker’s dream world.

Almost everything you need to run a basic do-it-yourself biology lab is up for grabs. Need a centrifuge to separate your DNA from cellular junk? Take your pick of 20. How about a lightbox to illuminate your DNA fragments? No problem. It is the same for the scales you need to weigh minuscule amounts of chemicals; pipettes, pipette-tips, and plastic tubes to handle and dispense tiny amounts of liquids; and Bunsen burners (or, in our case, a much cheaper camping gas burner) to sterilise equipment.

Other biohackers had told us that eBay was like this, but it wasn’t until we began to look for everything on our shopping list for our own lab that we believed them.

The biggest piece of machinery on the list was the PCR machine, also known as a thermocycler. It’s essentially a souped-up water bath, but it enables an indispensable technique worthy of a Nobel prize. Invented by Kary Mullis in 1983, the Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR for short, amplifies genetic material quickly and reliably, creating up to one billion times the DNA you started out with. It’s the technique used by forensic teams to get evidence from crime scenes, by lawyers for paternity tests, and – we hoped – by a group of German journalists to successfully carry out genetic experiments.

While chatting with one seller about some technical details, we learned he had another one that he found at his university waste tip. Twenty years ago the machine would have cost a professional lab as much as a home in the Berlin suburbs. We agreed to take it together with a power supply unit for 320 euros.

The amazing thing was that no one asked any questions during our shopping spree. True, we did receive a suspicious look from the person behind the pharmacy counter when we wanted to buy a bottle of 100% alcohol. But once we assured her that it was for genetic experiments rather than drinking, she was happy to hand over the big brown glass bottle.

We were also held up by customs when we tried to bring in a small lightbox that helps to illuminate DNA fragments. We tried several times to explain what biohacking was and how we planned to use the machine, but the customs officers didn’t seem to believe that anyone would – or could – set up a genetics lab in their kitchen. Exasperated, one officer interrupted another fruitless attempt to explain what the machines did. “So, it's something for computers?” she asked. Her male colleague, clearly tired of the conversation, cited a procedure concerning items with a value of no more than 250 euros.

“Is it something electrical?” he asked. “Er... it does need electricity, yes,” we replied. With that, he waved us through.

This completed our lab list: total cost, including the chemicals and biological materials needed, was 3,500 Euros and 51 cents. It's a lot of money, but splitting the cost between us, we paid less for a working lab than the cost of an Apple laptop each.

Lonesome warriors

As our partners weren’t keen on using any of this stuff at home, we decided to build the lab in our office in the Schoneberg district of Berlin. We got strange looks from those in the neighbouring offices, who were used to journalist's long phone calls but not the whirrs and beeps from PCR machines or centrifuges.

Once we had the equipment assembled, the worries began. We had vague memories of the practicals we had to do in our university biology classes – some good, but mainly bad, a litany of failures and frustrations. Some of the procedures we were about to try in our improvised lab were exactly those kinds of experiments. The only difference was that this time we could not count on a supervisor or skilled colleague to help us. We had to rely on our faded memories of lab work and on internet sources to help us whenever we got stuck. We had a lot of questions. Would we be able to isolate DNA? Would we amplify genes with a machine salvaged from the trash? Would even the simplest experiments be beyond our meagre skills? Would we join the legions of people who bought a surfboard but never really rode a wave, or who bought a guitar and never got beyond “Country Roads”?

There’s an open secret that every professional scientist knows about lab research. It’s difficult. It’s frustrating. It rarely goes right. The amount of blood, sweat and tears you put into an experiment bears little reflection on whether it will actually succeed.

We learned the hard way that lab work – especially in a DIY setting – consists of a lot of trial and error. The trials are promising, the errors devastating. You make a small mistake with the buffer solutions that keep your samples stable, and days of work can go down the drain. You misplace or accidentally contaminate a tiny drop of liquid while pipetting into a tube that's smaller than a thimble, and your experiment fails. You try different salt concentrations to make the experiment run better, you vary heat and cool cycles for your PCR machine, you test whether a little more of the DNA-copying enzyme might do the trick. You have to improvise and be patient.

Added to that, of course, there's the downside of the cheap supplies and the vintage machinery you use. It’s like making a souffle in a kitchen you’ve never cooked in, using old utensils you’ve never used, and an old oven that may or may not reach the temperature required. You have the correct recipe and the ingredients but you have no idea if the souffle will rise. If it doesn’t, your only option is to start again, add a bit more of an ingredient, whisk the mixture a bit more, or turn an oven dial slightly, and cross your fingers that at some point it will rise.

To make things worse, the makeshift observation room where we looked at our abject failures was the toilet in the Schoneberg office building. It was the only room without windows, which made it the only room dark enough to be able to see any traces of amplified DNA in our gels.

After days and nights of fruitless effort in our overheated office corner, not knowing where the glitch in the system was, our nerves were on edge. Nothing seemed to work. We made countless trips to and from the toilet, staring at countless blank gels, willing a band to appear that never did.

When we had been researching our venture in the United States Kay Aull, one of its pioneer biohackers, had warned us: “There's a lot that can go wrong, and you don't have colleagues who can come to the rescue and explain what your mistake was and what to do about it – you're lonesome warriors.” In our case, we tried not to think of the money wasted on failed experiments, or the fact that our regular daytime jobs which paid the rent were taking a hit because the experiments had become an obsession.

Glowing triumph

But after many efforts something magical happened. Two of us were locked in a toilet in the usual fashion, both looking at a gel, like we had done a dozen times before, weakly hoping that this time we would be able to see a trace of DNA. Then it appeared: an orange band. It was pale at first, a small, rectangular glowing band that told us there was DNA within it. It had been copied a million-fold in our second-hand PCR machine saved from the tip, separated from all the other gunk by running the sample in a gel, and we could see it thanks to the “electric item” that the customs people had quizzed us about. All the effort, work, frustration and expenses of the last couple of months were forgotten in a single, triumphant moment. We had done it. We could officially say we were biohackers.

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.

Security risk

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.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website: “Ricin works by getting inside the cells of a person’s body and preventing the cells from making the proteins they need. Without the proteins, cells die... Death from ricin poisoning could take place within 36 to 72 hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or injection) and the dose received.”

The gene, though, is inert. It’s not poisonous, it just contains the biological code to make the bad stuff. But it is on the list of potentially dangerous DNA fragments, which can only be ordered by specially registered laboratories. We did not want to produce anything dangerous, but we did want to probe how easy or hard it might be to do so – to legally obtain the required molecular ingredients for example, and to handle genes which might be the blueprint for producing something that could serve as a bioweapon. We only ordered portions of that code, the beginning of the gene, and the end. But, in theory, that’s enough for a biohacker to make the whole thing.

This could be considered the first step towards bioterrorism. The most disconcerting part is that the routine is not much different from our sushi experiments. After some trial and error, some consultation of freely available web-based databases and protocols and some tinkering with our kit, we succeeded. We looked at another band glowing in a gel. This time, it was the ricin gene.

In our hands, embedded in a gel of agarose sugar, were millions of copies of a gene that contains potentially deadly information. There was nothing to stop us from trying to put the gene for one of nature's most potent toxins into bacteria to see if we could make them produce unlimited copies – clone the ricin gene in other words. It could be done in a day; cloning genes is a mundane, everyday task in professional labs worldwide, even for biohackers at home or in collectives. This wouldn’t be a threat on its own – microbes may be able to produce a full ricin protein, but they can’t process it in a way the castor plant does to arm the poison. On the other hand, there are protocols available to work around these hurdles. There is scientific literature showing how to produce only the toxic part of ricin and turn it into a therapeutic agent against cancer cells. But it begs the question of whether we could – in an improvised office laboratory – do the experiments needed to create a potential bioweapon?

We stopped short of trying what would be an illegal and dangerous step. We needed to reflect on what we’d learned. We succeeded not only in getting all the materials we needed, but also doing almost everything we had set out to do.

Not long after we paused our experiments the word spread through the community that the FBI planned an event with biohackers from the US as well as Europe and Asia. We requested an invite. The FBI was asking the same questions we were, questions we thought society should be asking, too. What could the future look like in terms of biotech citizen science, but also in terms of DIY-bioterror and sabotage? And how do you try to guard against threats that may not exist yet? Those are the questions we will try to answer in the third and final part of our journey into the world of biohacking.

More from this series
Becoming biohackers: Learning the game

Becoming biohackers: The long arm of the law

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.