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BBC - Future Becoming Biohackers: Learning the Game

BBC - Future Becoming Biohackers: Learning the Game

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Published by richardus2099
When you have lunch courtesy of the FBI, you are offered chicken Caesar salad, hamburger or fish. Soft drinks are extra. Throughout our two-day visit we were happy to dine on FBI hamburgers and Caesar salad, but declined the seafood option. The atmosphere seemed fishy enough.
When you have lunch courtesy of the FBI, you are offered chicken Caesar salad, hamburger or fish. Soft drinks are extra. Throughout our two-day visit we were happy to dine on FBI hamburgers and Caesar salad, but declined the seafood option. The atmosphere seemed fishy enough.

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Published by: richardus2099 on Mar 05, 2013
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03/05/2013

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(Copyright: Thinkstock; Hanno Charisius, Richard Friebe and Sascha Karberg)
22 January 2013
More and more amateur biologists are carrying out genetic experimentsin homes and garagesworldwide. How easy isit to do? Three writersdecided to find out.
Read parts two(http://www.bbc.com/future /story/20130123-hacking-genes-in-humble-settings)and three (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130124-biohacking-fear-and-the-fbi) of thisbiohacking story 
When you have lunch courtesy of the FBI, you are offered chicken Caesar salad, hamburger or fish.Soft drinks are extra. Throughout our two-day visit we were happy to dine on FBI hamburgers andCaesar salad, but declined the seafood option. The atmosphere seemed fishy enough.We were in Walnut Creek, California, at the invitation of agent Nathaniel Head. He is a nice guy witha pleasant demeanour; there’s no furtive spy-like behaviour or obvious demonstration of power. Hemay be dressed in a smart khaki suit and striped tie (red, white and blue, of course), but he actsmore like a professor. And thanks to a university background in microbiology, he is able to talkknowledgably about science. Head spared no effort in making us feel at ease, and the other agentspresent tried to do the same – all wide smiles and “glad-to-have-you-heres”.But despite this bonhomie, sitting in the windowless conference room in the basement of anondescript hotel building in Walnut Creek still left us feeling uncomfortable. And it wasn’t justbecause there was a palpable Big Brother atmosphere in the room. Instead, we were acutely awarethat we must have done something to bring us to the attention of Head; someone whose area of expertise is weapons of mass destruction.But we don't smuggle plutonium. We don’t supply chemical weapons. We don’t build rockets.Instead, we have a hobby that the FBI believes could be so dangerous that they have come up witha special programme to make sense of it. That hobby is to play with genes, proteins and bacteria inour spare time in a homemade lab we constructed from scratch. We are part of a rapidly growingcommunity of amateur geneticists, who are often labelled biopunks, or outlaw biologists. Or, better
Hanno Charisius, Richard Friebe and Sascha Karberg 
 
still, in an analogy to the computer programming enthusiasts of a generation ago, some call usbiohackers. But instead of software code, we try to tinker with DNA, the code of life.And we’re far from alone. For several years a growing number of do-it-yourself biologists around theworld have been carrying out the sorts of experiments that, until recently, were only possible inprofessional labs.Now, in an attempt to keep track of what’s going on, the FBI has set up the BiologicalCountermeasures Unit, which Nathaniel Head is a part of. One of their goals in preventing acts of terrorism is to reach out to leading names in the field to quiz them about what they do. Which is howwe ended up in Walnut Creek, as part of a workshop involving FBI agents and around 30 of the mostprominent members of the growing DIYbio movement.
 Acid tes
 This movement has become possible being because the techniques used in molecular biology havebecome simpler and cheaper. A couple of decades ago, it took three years to learn how to clone andsequence a gene, and you earned a PhD in the process. Now, thanks to ready-made kits you can dothe same in less than three days. Specialised materials and second-hand equipment are much moreaffordable, not to mention more available. Machines for amplifying DNA can now be purchasedonline, whilst enzymes and chemicals for creating, manipulating and sticking together DNA can beordered off the shelf. The cost of sequencing DNA has plummeted, from about $100,000 for readinga million letters, or base pairs, of DNA code in 2001, to
around 10 cents today (http://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/)
.So, in theory, there is now nothing to stop someone from constructing a lab, donning a white coatand becoming an amateur genetic detective – especially three science writing friends from Berlin andMunich with university degrees in biology (though admittedly we’d earned these more than a dozenyears ago).Or is there? That was what we wanted to find out. Could we manipulate and analyse genes likeprofessional scientists do? Could we break into cells and hack their DNA? Would we be able totransfer this material from one basic organism to another? How far would we be willing to test theethical or legal issues surrounding this work? Or is biohacking just another fad that is too tricky andlaborious to ever take off beyond the level of geek-driven enthusiasm?More than two years ago, we set out to build a lab for ourselves to see what was possible and tohelp us understand this burgeoning field. When we started, we were not aware of any DIY biologistsin our native Germany; biohackers were (and still are) mostly in the US.Since then, biohacker communities have popped up around the globe, with hundreds of do-it-yourself biologists testing their experimental prowess. Visit one of the many online forums dedicated to thefield and you will find thousands willing to join the movement, all eager to try and engineer DNA intheir kitchen or garage labs. Like home chefs scouring and testing recipes available on the web,biohackers use freely downloadable protocols to clone genes in bacteria. You can, for example,make bacteria glow in the dark – just for fun.But back in 2010, there was no thriving virtual community, no convenient how-to guides for thecurious. So, on a cloudy morning in April we found ourselves on a plane heading to the US for thefirst of several road trips to meet the leading lights of the biohacking community and ask if they couldhelp us out.
Bedroom genetics
One of the first people to open their doors to us was Kay Aull. A superstar of the biohacking world,Aull rose to prominence after building her own genetic testing kit in the small room she used to live inas a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In her makeshift lab, she analysed a specific gene
 
mutation linked to a disease her father was diagnosed with, called haemochromatosis. If you have it,the body is unable to get rid of excess iron. With relatively simple – and cheap – tests, theMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate found both the faulty gene from her dad andthe unaffected one, inherited from her mother, in her own DNA. The result meant she is a carrier butunlikely to contract the disease.When we first met Aull, she shared an apartment in the Cambridgeport area near MIT with otherstudents and her three cats. With bobbed hair, glasses, and wearing a skiing vest, she looked likethe picture-perfect nerd, but we soon discovered an inviting, open-minded person with an engagingattitude.After opening pleasantries, she led us to her bedroom, with nosy cats following, and proudly openedher closet door to reveal her $500 genetic engineering lab. Chemical reagents, syringes, Petridishes, pipette tips and Erlenmeyer flasks sat on the top shelf, next to a pile of T-shirts. A powersupply and a home-made lightbox that makes DNA visible were neatly arranged below. On the bottomshelf, was a vintage block-like contraption for copying DNA that showed its 10-year age by the noiseof its ventilation system whenever it was turned on.Aull decided to investigate her own genetic legacy when her father was first diagnosed withhaemochromatosis. He was given pages and pages of documents packed with scientific jargon thathe was “unable to make sense of”. Frustrated, she decided “to show people in a similar situation thatgenetic testing is not magic” – that it is a routine technique just like an oil change for a car.Her apartment-turned-lab was testimony to that, and to the innovative spirit which underpinsbiohacking. To get samples of cells swabbed from her cheek to pop open and release their DNA Aulldid nothing more sophisticated than heat them in a saucepan of boiling water in her kitchen. Hersecond-hand equipment made over a million copies of the gene that might carry thehaemochromatosis mutation. And to visualise the amplified DNA to see if the gene carried amutation, she used blue Christmas tree lights instead of the expensive high-end trans-illuminatorsthat professional labs use.If this sounds like the kind of thing you should probably not be doing alongside your pot of pasta, Aullreassured us her experiments were harmless. Her test? She only used materials that would do noharm to her cats if they inadvertently encountered anything.Aull embodies the common purpose that drives most people in the biohacking world. Many do not justwant to play with something new. Instead, they share an impulse to empower themselves, and to notleave everything to the experts. They are happy to show novices the fruits of their labours. It was anenlightened vision of the democratisation of science. Yet it is impossible to avoid the negative connotations of this utopian outlook. Mention scare stories,and the name of 
Steve Kurtz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Kurtz)
will undoubtedly crop up.When we visited the arts professor at the State University of New York, he still had vivid memoriesof the day in May 2004 when the FBI, accompanied by a special anti-bioterror unit, raided his housein Buffalo, NY. His wife Hope had died at home the previous day. Kurtz called 911. When theparamedics arrived at the scene, they saw Petri dishes with bacterial cultures. “They were looking atthis stuff, and thought maybe I killed her by some kind of biochemical toxin,” recalled Kurtz. Next day,the grieving Kurtz, on his way to making arrangements for his wife's funeral, was detained by the FBIand interrogated for 22 hours as a bioterrorism suspect. His cat was confiscated on the suspicion itwas being used as a vector for spreading a deadly infection in the neighbourhood, though Kurtz saidhe found it locked up in the attic when he returned.It was a false alarm in the most tragic of circumstances. Hope had died from heart failure. Thebacteria in the house were part of a video installation project called
Marching Plague (http://v2.nl  /archive/works/marching-plague)
, a re-creation of a 1952 British military experiment in whichguinea pigs were infected with bubonic plague to see how fast it would spread. The bacteria Kurtzused was harmless with no more potential for harm than the mould growing on a lump of Roquefort –

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