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.
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.
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