Source: Straits Times, 13 June 2009
By Andy Ho, Senior Writer
SCIENTIFICALLY inclined youngsters are setting up do-it- yourself biology laboratories at home. Likened to self-trained computer hackers, these enthusiasts – self-styled biohackers – browse online catalogues of DNA parts and order them from small commercial labs. With self-modified household items and used equipment acquired online, they try to tweak bacteria or synthesise novel organisms in their free time.
I recently met a fresh graduate from a US university who, on returning home, wanted to find just such an interest group here. But first, he had to ask his supplier in the United States if it would ship some oligomers (DNA parts) to him. The lab promptly replied in the positive and asked just ‘how many nanomoles or micromoles’ he needed. All he needed to do was provide a shipping address and pay online by credit card.
This is not the ‘older’ genetic engineering in which scientists tried to tweak DNA inside living cells to make new substances. In a fresher field called ‘synthetic genomics’, customised DNA segments made in labs are inserted into cells to reprogramme them. Or the DNA parts could be stitched together to make whole genomes. Biohacking might be defined as doing ‘synthetic genomics’ at home.
Aside from the commercial availability of inexpensive synthetic DNA parts, what enables this grassroots movement is the online availability, for free, of genomics databases and bioinformatics programs to tweak genomics data. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s public BioBricks database of standardised biological parts comes with details of how specific DNA segments code for specific biological functions. Using this, the biohacker can determine which DNA parts to purchase so he can switch genes ‘on’ or ‘off’ in order to reprogramme cells, for example.
For hardware, these weekend DNA jockeys can retrofit household items. Hobbyists may also scour eBay and amazon.com for used items like PCR thermocyclers that ‘xerox’ billions of copies of DNA segments. Helpful websites include openwetware.org, diybio.org, dnahack.com and others.
Many novices like to use squid genes to make bacteria glow. Some hope to make bacteria glow when melamine – used to adulterate infant milk formula in the recent scandal in China – is found. Another popular aim is reprogramming bacteria to make biofuels. Some have even managed to tweak bacteria so they smell like bananas.
With inexpensive DNA parts and accurate databases, enthusiasts can now assemble genes quickly and accurately. It is plausible that a medium-sized viral genome can be thus constructed from scratch over just a few weeks.
In 2002, US scientists reported in Science how they had stitched together DNA parts ordered online to make a polio virus genome that could infect lab mice. In 2003, scientists took just two weeks to make the infectious phiX174 bacteriophage, a type of virus. In 2005, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention synthesised the 1918 Spanish flu virus using DNA parts purchased online.
Last year, boffins in the US put together Mycoplasma genitalium using purely synthetic DNA. This is a type of organism that is larger than viruses. Thus the ability to synthesise ever larger genomes is at hand. MIT estimates put the prices of assembling, in the kitchen sink, the Ebola virus at just US$8,500 (S$12,300); smallpox US$84,000; plague US$2.1 million; and anthrax US$2.4 million.
In the wrong hands, could this mean instant bioterrorism? While commercial labs check to see if the DNA sequences ordered are dangerous, they generally scrutinise only orders for large segments. One could simply order small segments from multiple labs to escape detection. These could then be stitched together to make deadly viruses. One could also order key genes and insert them into a harmless but related virus to turn it lethal.
Science fiction? A Japanese doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo did try to weaponise anthrax and Ebola. Perhaps, Al-Qaeda or North Korea might be interested too. As this is an unregulated industry, there is no US or European Union agency monitoring DNA order streams across labs. The EU, though, has initiated its Synbiosafe project to look into this.
But won’t regulating biohacking curb the democratisation of science?
This is a misleading supposition. For science to progress, one’s findings must be disseminated so others can try to replicate and confirm them. This inevitably requires senior scientists adjudicating whether your work passes muster for publication. In the absence of such gatekeeping, hobbyists remain hobbyists, not scientists, so there is no democratising of science anyway.
Still, this could be the democratising of technology. Just as there was no reason why hackers could not write computer code without joining software firms, biohackers want to do things without big expensive labs. Their focus is not on publishable science but engineered solutions.
In general, all engineers solve problems by bricolage – trying out novel combinations of existing, interchangeable parts. Innumerable hobbyists trying different DNA combinations – and telling others about their work online – might well develop novel solutions to problems that business or governments aren’t interested in. If so, licensing hobbyists and monitoring their activities might be the best way to promote safe biohacking.