Is the rise of amateur gene enthusiasts working in make-shift labs a harmless pursuit or a potential bioterrorism threat? The third part of this biohacking series reveals the concerns of the FBI and the community, and why views differ on what to do about it.

Read part one and two of this biohacking story

We were late. The route to Walnut Creek using San Francisco’s public transport took longer than we thought. When we eventually arrived, breathless, at the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, signs saying “FBI workshop” led the way to the basement. We hesitated. Should we really be part of this? Should we really reveal what we had been doing for the last two years to the FBI? Before we could reconsider, we saw a friendly, 40-something man in a khaki suit and white-collared shirt welcoming a crowd of more than 30 other people from across the globe. “We appreciate you guys coming, it's good to put names to email addresses,” said Nathaniel Head, the supervisory special agent of the FBI’s Biological Countermeasures Unit.

The other faces in the room showed just how much the field of biohacking had evolved since we began our own experiments nearly two years earlier. Then, almost all amateur geneticists – tinkering away with DNA in their kitchens and garages – were based in the US. By the time of the conference, we knew hackers around the world, from Ireland to Indonesia, from Singapore to Denmark, even in our native Germany. There were now biohacking organisations, biohacking events, virtual networks and co-working spaces for enthusiasts to swap stories, advice and protocols.

As the field has steadily grown, so have the headlines. Some have been positive, trumpeting its promise and hailing it as a demonstration of democratic science. Others have been much less welcoming, fearing a possible dawn of bioterrorism, where rogue biohackers manipulate toxic genes to create dangerous, pathogenic microbes.

Although the truth is perhaps less sensational, one thing is clear: biohacking is a rapidly growing field, driven by ever more powerful – yet affordable – technology. It’s only a matter of time before anyone with an eBay account and the right motivation could do the type of DNA experiments we did in our make-shift lab.

No one is more acutely aware of this than the FBI. To counter the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the US intelligence agency established the WMD Directorate in 2006, aimed at dealing with “incidents involving nuclear, radiological, biological, or chemical weapons”. Since then, its Biological Countermeasures Unit has closely followed the emerging field of biohacking. Agents in 56 FBI offices across the US reached out to the field’s leading names, acknowledging their efforts and learning about what they do. And, as the movement spread beyond the US, Head organised the first international DIYbio Outreach Workshop – which is where we found ourselves breathlessly shaking hands with the special agent in June 2012, and rubbed shoulders with well-known members of the biohacking community, such as those based in Copenhagen's Biologigaragen, Manchester's Madlab, New York's Genspace or Paris's La Paillasse.

Head, who holds a university degree in microbiology, seemed open-minded towards biohackers. He called the gathered crowd “great thinkers” and “innovators”, who were changing the world. But he left no doubt as to the reason behind the workshop. “We want to learn about biohacking and to be able to separate between the white and the black hats,” he said, differentiating between harmless amateur tinkerers and potential bioterrorists misusing genetic engineering technology.

Is it justifiable to fear that amateur biologists might see it as a personal challenge to make a killer virus in their garage, as Michael Osterholm of the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity put it in 2012? Is every second-hand biotech machine sold on eBay and every new DNA technology kit marketed by biotech companies a step in that direction? The FBI clearly see it as a possibility, and it is perhaps easy to see why.

Bioterror agents

Take the recent controversy surrounding man-made forms of the flu virus. Last year, two teams of scientists – one led by Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, the other led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US – announced they had each mutated the H5N1 bird-flu virus in such a way that it could spread between mammals more easily. Fouchier and Kawaoka argued they were trying to understand how natural viruses evolve into more dangerous forms, but their announcements sparked an international storm: should the work be published in full to help authorities prepare for a potential pandemic, or should it be withheld from the research community to prevent possible misuse by amateur scientists or even bioterrorists? As a result of months of pressure from scientific journals and notable names in the field, the work was eventually published last summer, but as a compromise the researchers agreed to a self-imposed moratorium on such work. After a year of discussions, the ban has just been lifted.

But some academics – and many within the biohacking community – are sceptical about such fears. Most biohackers, ourselves included, aren’t doing new science – though it is a new way of doing science. “Just having the right cookware doesn't make you a great chef just yet,” says Jason Bobe, director of the Personal Genome Project at Harvard University and co-founder of the organisation “It's misguided to think that everything a professional lab can do will also be possible in a home setting.”

Others point out that any bioterrorist who is focused on causing havoc, could do so by far simpler means. “You don't even need to synthesise anything new,” says Eckhard Wimmer, a virologist at New York State University at Stony Brook who first demonstrated that the polio virus can be reassembled from tiny pieces of hereditary material. His work raised fears that rogue groups could create something similar, but he argues the complexity of the work is enough of a barrier. He also cites previous examples of bioterrorism, which required little understanding of genetics and its techniques. For example, 11 years ago a number of American federal politicians were sent anthrax spores through the post, something that required a lot less effort than trying to reactivate polio in the lab.

Similarly, the ricin toxin found naturally in castor beans has been manufactured and used as a bioweapon, but no use of synthetic ricin bacteria or man-made toxin has been heard of – it is much easier to isolate the poison from plants or seeds than produce it from genetically engineered organisms. “Nature is the better bioterrorist,” says Wimmer.

But, the FBI are still wary. To try to spot any potential issues, the agency encourages biohackers to adopt a neighbourhood-watch-style approach – to be the “first-line defence” against “nefarious actors”, as Craig Fair of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division in San Francisco put it during the Walnut Creek workshop. The biohacking community in the US has largely responded in kind. Collectives such as Genspace in New York began working with the FBI early on, and the agency even helped them in their dealings with the local fire safety and health authorities. A spokeswoman for the agency told us there is currently no surveillance or investigation of any biohacker labs. No lab ever had to be closed, and DIYbio activities have “absolutely nothing criminal about them”. The experiences by now “are overwhelmingly positive”, she added. That’s the official line, anyway.

One session at the conference asked the assembled group to think about possible worst-case scenarios. In one example, a biohacker called “Deb” was sneaking castor beans into the lab, and engaging in aggressive, politically-charged discussions with lab members. “How do you respond in this situation,” Kate Carley, another charming FBI officer, asked the biohacker crowd. “Do you report the incident?” Regardless of what we thought, the FBI’s answer is a resounding yes. Her next slide showed Deb leaving the community lab to secretly work at home, before being arrested for experimenting with human pathogens and toxins. Even worse – for us at least – the fictitious slide showed newspaper stories where Deb was described as being part of the biohacker community.

These slides were clearly designed to show the most extreme examples and to drive home the FBI’s point. When asked whether a real “Deb” had ever been investigated, arrested, or even heard of, the FBI’s Head had to admit: “No.”

Surveillance systems

The idea that well-meaning biohackers could help the FBI by reporting any suspicious activities, has many in the field worried, particularly those outside of the US. “[It] reminds me of the Stasis's methods,” says Rudiger Trojok, one of Germany's most active biohackers, comparing the policy to the infamous spying network that operated in East Germany between 1950 and 1990. “Biohacking is not the FBI's, it's a civilian business.” 

Of course no one in the biohacking community wants to see any rogue biopunks creating headlines that would bring the entire community into disrepute. To try to counteract this, the DIYbio community is running a survey that it hopes will dispel any misconceptions about its motives. The German biohackers we got to know, such as Trojok from Freiburg and Lisa Thalheim of Berlin, have even started to draft rules for what they call “biohacking ethics”. Their code of conduct would include moratoria on certain kinds of experiments, a registration system and mutual voluntary inspections of labs by biohackers.

But even this concerns some practitioners, who worry that a field that has flourished precisely because it is informal and unregulated, will be stifled. When Trojok and Thalheim presented their ideas about a “web of trust” at a meeting at the London School of Economics in 2011 some felt it was too restrictive. Instead, people like Jason Bobe from the Personal Genomes Project at Harvard University, favours a much more liberal approach, with general Hippocratic rules like “do no harm” at its core.

Together with Todd Kuiken from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Bobe has just launched an initiative called “Ask a Biosafety Expert” that, in their view, best meets the hobbyist’s needs. The idea is that biohackers from all over the world can go to the website anonymously and submit any questions, from how to clean things up to aspects of the safety of experiments. Within a day or so they’d receive an answer from a biosafety expert. This way, according to Kuiken, people could operate in a safe manner, relying on personal responsibility rather than control.

Of course, nobody knows if a stick or a carrot is the right tool as we enter the age of personal biotech. But whoever is given the task of devising rules will have to consider the virtues of having molecular biology among the masses – can personal biotech improve society, will it lead to valuable inventions and innovations, will it be a democratising force, will it help distribute wealth, economic and intellectual power more widely?

These are all big questions for a field that is still in its infancy, says Ellen Jorgensen, president of the community biotechnology laboratory Genspace in New York. “It’s too early to tell,” she says. “You can argue, that if you get people with radically different backgrounds, you get fresh perspectives and new ideas. And you can argue that science is so complicated now, that DIY could not make any valid contribution, that you need to have too much expertise and infrastructure, (something) that DIY would never have.”

Jorgensen is optimistic, however. “There’s certainly a great potential, and I’m not the one who would say, that it is not going to happen. I want to see it happen!”

Of course, all the nice, well-meaning people we met during our long journey through the world of DIY biology are no guarantee that there isn't anyone out there putting their criminal energy into biotech. But limiting the work and the opportunities of the former just because of fear of the latter will do nothing to change that.

Methods and materials, such as the ones we used, are on the verge of becoming available to a wider public. It is that public which will have to decide how to use biotech in the future. To be able to do that, people need to have the opportunity to get to know and use it, rather than leaving the decisions about its future to the political, industrial and scientific elites.

The hope is that we and others in the DIYbio movement can and will continue to switch on a light which allows people to better understand a technology that may shape their future in major ways. We may have locked ourselves up in a toilet so that we could see our first DIY-produced gene. But we did so in order to keep the light out, not the police.

More from this series
Becoming biohackers: Learning the game

Becoming biohackers: The experiments begin

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.