How Biohacking Works

Tim Cannon, a developer for Grindhouse Wetware, models his magnetic implant.
Tim Cannon, a developer for Grindhouse Wetware, models his magnetic implant.
© Ole Spata/dpa/Corbis

Kids today. If they're not piercing each other's ears with potatoes and ice cubes, they're slicing their fingers open and jamming neodymium magnets into their nerve endings. And they never go outside! They just spend all day performing genomic assays and building bionics in the basement.

Not terribly long ago, do-it-yourself (DIY) projects were the province of shade-tree mechanics and people who kept wood lathes in their garages. They dealt with grease and iron, wood and wiring, and left anything computerized or biological to the experts.

But in the early 1970s, cheap microprocessors sparked a race to build the first marketable personal computer, a contest that spawned future industry giants like Microsoft and Apple, the latter of which was born in the garage of Steve Job's parents. By the mid-1980s, a technology once fought over at universities and limited-tech research centers had become the domain of budding child programmers.

What does all of this have to do with bootstrapped biotechnology? Everything. As two generations -- the one that built computers and the one that grew up programming them -- sparked the Internet age and the dot-com boom, they also gave rise to a new ethos, one based on DIY technology, driven by a love of creation and a thirst for improvement, and connected by a network of freely shared ideas and tools.

This "hacker ethic" soon spread to hacking everything from our lives to our brains. Why should our biology or biological information be any different? Why, ask hackers, should we wait for industry or government to decide the direction technology takes? Who should own, access or profit from our information? If biology is destiny, are we content to trust our fate to accidents of genetics? And if knowledge is power, doesn't social equality demand that we place that power, to the degree prudent and possible, in the hands of the people?

They're difficult questions, but biohackers aren't waiting around for someone else to answer them. While body-modifying grinders seek to implant cutting-edge tech via the kitchen cutting board, other biohackers collaborate to build a better biological mousetrap, while still others teach basic genomics in community biotech spaces. With access to ever cheaper technology and the knowledge and community the Web provides, this small but growing movement is expanding cybernetics and genomics beyond the proprietary corridors of Big Pharma and the cloistered halls of universities.

All of which raises the question: Are biohackers aiding the democratization of science or letting the genie out of the bottle?