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.