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How Biohacking Works

DIY Bioscience: If You Want Something Done Right ...

A few scattered grinders and basement biohackers might spark some novel technologies, but they're unlikely to inspire a widespread bioscience culture. For that, we must look to proponents of DIY bioscience, who break down barriers of education and access in much the same way that open-access, collaborative programming once opened up the digital world. Like the mid-1970s computer explosion, its expansion is fired by skilled people sharing time, knowledge and resources, but also by a spirit of entrepreneurship and impatient creativity.

Projects can range from performing genetic tests to splicing DNA, reprogramming bacteria or creating genetically engineered machines. Biohackers have dabbled in mouth bacteria that eat plaque and recalcify teeth, organisms that detect arsenic in water and bacteria that kill tumor cells [sources: Boustead; Brodwin]. At least one biohacker is re-engineering bacteria into a detailed imaging technique nicknamed "E.colaroid" [source: Boustead]. Microbial fuel cells have received ample news coverage, as have glow-in-the-dark plants concocted from bioluminescent bacteria genes [sources: Biba; Brodwin]. Meanwhile, Yuriy Fazylov, an undergraduate in Brooklyn, New York, is working on radiation-resistant plants with which to mitigate nuclear disasters or colonize planets [sources: Brodwin].

How is it even possible to be a hobbyist in fields as cutting-edge as bioscience and biotechnology? As requisite tools become cheaper and refined into plug-and-play kits, they become accessible to a wider array of people. Add to that the power of volunteerism and the invention-mothering quality of necessity, and you have a recipe for innovation. The power of this principle grows more apparent when one considers that DIY bioscientists come from a variety of backgrounds, many of them technical, which enables them to build or modify essential equipment at a fraction of market value.

Consider OpenPCR, a biohacked version of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine essential to DNA analysis that sells for one-tenth the usual price, or the gel imager that University of California, Berkeley students bashed together out of cardboard, Lucite, a blue LED and an iPhone, and you begin to see the value of synergy in tight economic times [sources: Biba; Martin]. Meanwhile, small biofirms are beginning to work on orphan drugs -- medicines for diseases that are too rare for major pharmaceutical companies to bother with [source: Martin].

Practically speaking, moving bioscience into the public sphere holds both potential advantages and risks. By sidestepping academia's more methodical approach, biohackers move faster and explore areas that scientists might find unpublishable. But they also risk blundering into poorly understood areas of biology and physiology. In the end, professionals and amateurs will likely need to cooperate to promote best practices.

But DIY bioscience also shines a light on vital questions of ethics and the public good. Whatever else may come of their actions, biohackers have expanded public education in their fields and voiced legitimate concerns about the proprietary nature of genetic research.