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Biohacking 101: Tools of the Biopunk Trade

Guest post from science and technology writer, Pam Baker.
bakercom1@gmail.com or on Twitter as @bakercom1

For some in academia and corporate or government research, it is difficult to imagine that biohacking amounts to more than substandard, amateur tinkering. After all, the Human Genome Project took a decade and the staggering sum of US$2.7 billion to complete. How can mere citizens possibly master such difficult and costly science in ill-equipped home labs? It turns out that the biohacking process is much easier and cheaper than one would think.

For one thing, computing muscle is easy to obtain and quite cheap these days. For another, custom strands of DNA for bioengineering projects can easily be ordered online. And lastly, biohackers, also known as biopunks, are very adept at rigging inexpensive home versions of expensive lab equipment and acquiring cheap chemicals from their own kitchens, health food stores and online. Before we take a look at tools and resources readily available to do-it-yourself (DIY) biohackers around the globe, please view this short video as a demonstration of how biohacking can be done literally anywhere. In this case, DNA extraction is performed in a tent at a cost amounting to pocket change.

Cathal Garvey demonstrating Do-it-Yourself DNA extraction in a tent from smarimc on Vimeo.

Biohackers, like computer hackers before them, need little more than an electronic mailing list to trade tips and information and find the tools they need. DIYbio is by far the largest such list. The discussion groups are riveting and the organized events of DIYbio regional groups demonstrate just how fast and far biohacking activity is spreading.

There are numerous independent offshoots that are growing membership in record numbers and sponsoring everything from crash courses in microbiology and genetics to round table discussions ranging from ethics to economic, humanitarian and environmental impact.

One such event was a DIYbio Workshop held at Mindfield, an “International Festival of Ideas,” on April 29th of this year in Dublin. The workshop was hosted by Cathal Garvey of Indie Biotech, a small startup based in Cork that facilitates DIYbio in Ireland. He is also the same gentleman you saw in the video demonstration above. A Meta-Hackerspace was also established at the event which drew a crowd of biohackers and computer hackers (and yes, there are people who are both) from the four Hackerspaces and Makerspaces of Ireland: TOG, 091Labs, MiLKlabs, and Nexus Cork. This large, albeit temporary, hackerspace provided physical workspace for biohackers to practice what they learned or to collaborate with other attendees on various projects.

Another such event occurred in the U.S. at almost the same time. Dubbed New York City’s first FutureLabCamp “biohackathon,” the wet camp focused on biological design and gadgetry such as pocket polymerase chain reaction (PCR) prototypes and a microscope modified to control the movement of paramecia. A similar event, FutureBioCamp, will debut in Boston in late May. Biohackers-to-be are “advised to bring spare beer and sleeping bags.”

There are plenty of other thriving resources for biohackers (both beginners and advanced) such as the OpenPCR and BioBricks projects. OpenPCR is an open source PCR machine used for DNA sequencing and barcoding. The BioBricks Foundation is rolling out the first professional standard biological parts, called BioBricks™, which are essentially fundamental building blocks of synthetic biology. The foundation also tackles ethics in the spread of synthetic biology via open source and open source communities.

Traditional open source repositories, such as Sourceforge and its The Open Biohacking Project/Kit, exist as well. There are even virtual PCR labs such as the one offered by the University of Utah wherein traditional academic resources are laid open before the nontraditional biohacker.

All told, biohackers are collectively a creative force as potentially disruptive as their predecessors: computer hackers. Their numbers are growing exponentially and their results will inevitably be both beneficial and destructive. But in any case, biohackers are shaping our future. They are catalysts for innovation and stand poised to impact academia and government and corporate labs in largely unexpected ways. Ignore this group at your peril. For better or worse, biopunks are here and nothing will ever be the same.

Biohacking 101: Tools of the Biopunk Trade

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