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 DIYbio.org. “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.