Innovation is the Holy Grail for enterprises. Yet the big innovative leaps tend to crouch in tiny garages and on kitchen tables at the hands of do-it-yourself (DIY) tinkerers rather than in business’ big-monied labs. That pattern in technological evolutionary pulses is still occurring today. These brave new hackers are carving our future on a shoestring and a prayer, just as innovative icons have done – from Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard (who began HP in a garage), to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (who hand-built the first Apple personal computer kit) to Bill Gates (who scored a demo meeting with a microcomputer manufacturer for software he hadn’t yet written for a computer he didn’t own).
This new breed of at-home, do-it-yourself innovators and entrepreneurs are called the biohackers, although some prefer to be called “biopunks” since the term “hackers” has gained a negative connotation. In the beginning of the computer age, hackers were white hats who worked on the act of code creation out of passion; whereas in recent years hackers are thought of almost exclusively as black hats who work feverishly on the act of data destruction. However, it is pretty obvious that biohackers in the black hat sense will arise as well – yet another reason the white hats among this gifted bioscience crowd tend to prefer to be called biopunks.
Birthing of the Biopunks
So, what is biohacking, you ask? "Biohacking means any tinkering with genes outside of an academic or corporate research setting,” says Marcus Wohlsen, author of the recently released BIOPUNK: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life. Wohlsen also has a Facebook page on the subject and his book.
Public perception, amongst those that have heard the term, is that biopunks are too few and too new to be of much societal import. But that would be nothing more than an urban myth. Indeed, biohacking has been around far longer and is far more common than most would expect.
“The first biohackers were those anonymous tinkerers thousands of years ago whose domestication of plants and animals led to the dawn of agriculture,” explains Wohlsen. “As soon as you intervene in the passing on of genes from one generation to the next, you're engaging in a primitive form of genetic engineering.”
In the modern sense of the direct manipulation of DNA, Wohlsen says interest in the idea of amateurs engaging in biotechnology first emerged in the 1990s. “The idea has taken off over the past few years along with rapid improvements in the speed and cost of reading and writing DNA.”
These days biohackers may still be poking around in agriculture, even in human cloning, but the vast majority have moved on to humankind’s more demanding needs, ranging from preventing diseases from ever occurring through manipulating an individual’s genetic code to building lifesaving antibiotics in the field to aid sufferers in remote areas be that aborigines or soldiers on a battlefield. The implications are limitless. Already many are considering the possible applications in everything from civil engineering and space exploration to the total replacement of medical and dental surgeries.
“Many biotechnologists believe that life science innovations will lead not just to cures for diseases but solutions to the global energy crisis and climate change, the solving of the world's food and water problems, even to the building of better computers,” says Wohlsen.
It is all this budding yet demonstrable promise that prompted Bill Gates to say in an April 19, 2010 Wired magazine interview that if he were 13 again, he would be hacking biology instead of computers. “There are more opportunities now,” he said in the Wired interview. “But they’re different opportunities. They need the same type of crazy fanaticism of youthful genius and naïveté that drove the PC industry — and can have the same impact on the human condition.”
The Invisible Visible Biopunks
“In other words, hackers will be the heroes of the next revolution, too,” concludes author Steven Levy in that Wired piece.
It would be natural to think that these hackers are fairly invisible given their natural habitat is a garage, a corner of their living room, or a chair by a kitchen sink. But they are easily visible once you know where to look. This new generation of hackers is drawn to community life as surely as the first generation of hackers was. So, while you may not be able to peer over their shoulders and watch their work in their homes, you can see vast and growing biohacker communities in many places.
While biopunk is unlikely to be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of open source, biohacking is almost entirely an open source field, hence the tendency to congregate in communities and to share data and code. The community has also built an open source DNA copy machine to speed individual efforts. The impetus to share biohacking with the masses is growing.
OpenPCR is an open source hackable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine used for DNA sequencing and DNA barcoding. The PCR is a fundamental piece of equipment in biohacking that repeatedly heats and cools a soup of DNA, base pairs, and enzymes to produce multiple copies of a section of DNA. A PCR can be built from scraps of old and cheap electronics – or custom copies of DNA code can be ordered online. There are even virtual PCR labs such as the one offered by the University of Utah.
To understand the importance of the scrappy PCR of today, consider that the Human Genome Project to sequence all 3 billion letters of our DNA took a decade and cost $2.7 billion. “It's now possible to go online, type in a few letters on a Web page, and order up custom strands of DNA for a bioengineering project,” says Wohlsen. “Digital technology has brought us to the brink of a time when biohackers can outsource what once were painstaking, expensive laboratory work to mail-order services for a cost even amateurs can afford.”
BioBricks is a foundation that addresses ethics and the spread of synthetic biology through open code and open communities. It also sells “biobricks,” chucks of DNA building blocks that speed and simplify biohacking projects.
More traditional open source repositories, such as Sourceforge with its The Open Biohacking Project/Kit, have thriving communities of biohackers openly sharing code as well.
There are even organized “biohackathons” such as the one recently held in a former bank in Brooklyn that was billed as New York’s first FutureLabCamp, a biohackers camp that focused on biological design and gadgetry.
In other words, biohacking communities are everywhere and public. Forming or finding a community is the easiest thing on a biopunks’ To Do list.
“People who want to get together to trade tips on how to do biotechnology at home need little more than an electronic mailing list,” says Wohlsen. “The DIYbio.org mailing list, for instance, has become a global hub for the biohacking subculture.”
It is important to understand that these communities and efforts are global; biohacking is not an exclusively American phenomena. Nor is biohacking limited to loners holed-up in their mother’s basement as a stereotypical image of former hackers might suggest. While it is true that biohackers tend to do their actual work alone, much like their computing hacker predecessors, this is a sophisticated group with, for the most part, a strong sense of social responsibility. Not all of them feel that way, of course, as there will be (if there are not already) a significant number of malcontents who will biohack with malicious purposes.
In any case, the corporate world will soon begin to see some benefit from the biopunks’ line of thinking. For example, an intrusion detection system for networks that mimics the body’s immune system is being developed by a team led by computer scientist Uwe Aickelin at the University of Nottingham in the UK. Steve Cayzer, a computational neuroscientist at HP Labs in Bristol, UK, said in the New Scientist article that researchers have been trying to develop artificial immune systems for computer networks for more than a decade. Such will come to be a reality. The only question that remains is whether a university, a biopunk, or a corporation will develop it first.
As for the mobile side of computing, “there's a common belief among biohackers that we will all soon carry around our entire genome sequences on our smartphones,” says Wohlsen. “Already a mobile app by the group DIYgenomics offers side-by-side comparisons of consumer gene-scanning services based on what genes they scan and on what research they base their conclusions.” Biohackers, he says, have also turned a $20 webcam into a powerful USB digital microscope and are working to do the same for smartphones. “Broadly speaking, biohackers want to use mobile tech to both gather and spread life science information.”
The competition to develop these and other biotech is intense since it will add enormous competitive advantage to some enterprises and entirely destroy others through antiquating their core products or services.
Still other companies may be destroyed by virtue of consumer control and backlash. Wohlsen says that a woman, the first bona fide biohacker he ever personally met, has an ongoing project that involves splicing jellyfish genes to make a biosensor that glows fluorescent green when the toxin melamine is present. In the past, Chinese dairy producers used Melamine in infant formula which led to the deaths of several children. Home kits such as this can detect problems and shortcuts in manufactured goods which will inevitably save lives – but could also lead to devastating lawsuits or a consumer boycott on a global scale never seen before.
The combination of social media and biopunk testing can result in a corporation’s literally overnight demise. Never before has the world seen consumers so totally and completely in control of a company’s fate.
The advent of biohacking also means the rise of new security threats for both consumers and enterprises. One of the things that makes these threats so scary is there is no way to foretell what shape such threats may come in – therefore there is no way to prevent such attacks. Other threats will be entirely unintentional, the result of runaway science loosed in the natural world. Those too will be difficult to eradicate as the problem will be totally unique and beyond our tools and experience.
For these reasons, and many others, biohacking is a phenomenon not to be ignored. And, while it is undercover, it isn’t an underground movement, and it’s coming your way now.