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Biohacking: how and why?

Biology is no longer restricted to the academic lab. Along comes biohacking: a grassroots movement promoting open science & open minds.

September 04, 2017

Biology is going large. Not only can we sequence an entire human genome in a matter of days, the technology to do this is becoming so cheap that more and more people can afford to do it at home. Biohackers, unite!

We are in a revolutionary period for the biological sciences. Not content with knowing the ins-and-outs of how life works, we are getting ever closer to being able to build it back up from scratch. As complex as this once seemed, fields such as synthetic biology are paving the way toward a democratisation of biology.

From open-sourcing data, platforms and ideas through to developing affordable equipment to carry out experiments, science is becoming more accessible to a wider range of people, including biohackers.

As Friedrich Dürrenmatt put it best; “Was alle angeht, können nur alle lösen.”

What concerns everyone, can be solved by everyone.

Biology for everyone.

As with many endeavours scattered through history, from creative writing through to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics), the opportunity to excel has often been an elitist one, at least in terms of the chances afforded to people.

However, not everyone has the academic acuity, nor often simply the opportunity, to progress from A-level to degree, masters to PhD, postdoc to PI, professor to nobel prize. This is out of scope for the vast majority of us, yet there is a significant number more who have the capacity and the drive to want to learn, discover and contribute.

Even for those who have pursued the academic route, after years of gruelling research during a PhD, it can be disheartening to realise that the chances of progression in a scientific career are increasingly limited.

Yet, there is a whole world out there, and when once scientific research was limited to the laboratory or industrial settings, now you are as likely to find innovation coming from more unlikely places.

This innovation often tackles areas that are overlooked by conventional science, often finding ways to circumvent cripplingly expensive medical interventions. Biohackers are exploring the limits of what is scientifically possible, often with little classic training, but with an intrepid attitude to tackling some of our biggest problems.

From classrooms, to hackerspaces and even the spare bedroom of a third floor New York apartment, scientific discovery is entering an entirely more open, democratic, grassroots and community-driven era.

What is biohacking?

The word “hacking” sometimes carries negative connotations, especially as many people hear of it only in terms of cyber attacks on computer infrastructure. Even this version of hacking is not as sophisticated as the media make out. This is not biohacking.

Biohacking also does not mean people want to take over your genome and genetically engineer you. It is most likely that they will be trying to somehow biohack themselves.

According to Sebastian Cocioba, biohacker and molecular florist, “Biohacking is the tinkering and modification of biological systems through conventional and unconventional means, typically in an informal setting, such as home labs, garage labs and community hackerspaces.”

It’s essentially biology DIY.

I recently appeared on a radio show, during which I shared the booth with a diabetic biohacker who was part of a community of people trying to break free from the chains of an underfunded NHS having to pander to large pharmaceutical companies.

This community of people were driven to make electronic devices that measured blood glucose content, while simultaneously dosing patients with insulin when required. Granted, the homemade device was a little large and required some setting up, but in the long term this will be much cheaper and much less hassle than having to regularly take finger-pricks and injecting insulin several times per day.

In communities, biohackers such as this are able to make life easier and more affordable for themselves and for others in need.

This community aspect of biohacking is very important. From the people I have met, including Sebastian Cocioba and Elliot Roth, who feature in our upcoming series on biohacking, it is as if everyone seems to know everyone in the world of biohacking.

As with life in any field, there are disagreements on how things should be done. Some people really focus on human (self) “improvement,” while others are looking for ways to better use the resources we have, building communities of amateur researchers who are striving to make a positive impact on science as a whole.

What is clear, is that with the advent of the internet, open data, open source tools and miniaturisation of techniques along with increasingly affordable scientific equipment, biology is being opened up and democratised.

It is simply not necessary to go and work in a university, industry, or do a PhD in order to become a scientist.

Biohackers, unite!

It’s not difficult to see how biology is becoming more and more doable for more and more people.

A quick google search will reveal the vast number of websites dedicated to selling second, third or even fourth-hand machines, most of which work just as well now as they did in the 1990s. Sure, it might be a bit clunky and stained yellow, but a spectrophotometer is a spectrophotometer.

But it’s not just old kit that is going cheap, these days.

In the last ten years alone, advances in genome sequencing methods are seeing prices for performing state-of-the-art science plummeting, especially now that tools such as the MinION are offering the chance to sequence a whole genome for less than one thousand pounds.

The MinION is a great example of how technology can easily spread beyond classic academia, as not only is it cheap, but some of the tools being developed to help researchers understand the data they generate are open-source, meaning that anyone who invests the time to learn how they work can get involved in using them.

As the tools are being open-sourced, now, so are many journals - and there is a great push from many in academia to make research more accessible. A swathe of scientific journals from New Phytologist to PLOS can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

What concerns us all…

Despite the sweeping advances in technology that we see all around us, scientific literacy amongst the general population hasn’t kept pace with scientific innovation. This is somewhere that biohacking can also come into its own.

Sebastian Cocioba, who we will interview in a future feature on biohacking, explains, “Our goal is to help students of all ages publish in peer reviewed journals through self-driven, novel research projects they are directly interested in. Science is the practical extension of natural human curiosity and we wish to harness this intrinsic trait through more hands-on learning focused on the generation of new knowledge.”

Finally, Elliot Roth - another ardent biohacker who features in our upcoming series - sums it up well when he says, “I am constantly concerned about the diffusion of technology, therefore the democratization and open-source nature of biohacking ensures that anyone, anywhere can work with biology.

“The moonshot advances in technology don’t necessarily come from industry but from the garage hackers that make something world-changing. I believe the next great advances will come from the biohacker community.”

Stay tuned to the EI website to find out more about what Sebastian and Elliot are doing to democratise and revolutionise the way we look at, and perform, science.