Biohacking and the Future of Human Improvement

Biohacking in a lab.

Do you believe that research is reserved for scientists? It is generally assumed that you need to have a Ph.D. and be affiliated with a research institution in order to engage in recognized scientific work. Do-it-yourself Biology (DIY Biology or DIY Bio), also known as biohacking, is challenging this notion.

This global movement is spreading valid scientific methods among the lay public. Biohackers are proposing that anyone can make a significant contribution to the field of biology. Biohacking bridges the gap between amateur scientists and professional biologists.

There are now situations where these two groups meet in modern labs that are open to the public. The activity of biohacking can be a lifelong passion, a hobby or sometimes the next great business idea. However, monetary reward is rarely in the forefront; biohackers are generally about innovation and creating a biotechnological community movement.

Starting in 1988, DIY Bio has since developed into a full-fledged concept. In 2016, the inaugural conference focusing on biohacking took place in Oakland – BioHACK THE PLANET (BioHTP). BioHTP signaled that the community is growing, both locally and globally. A number of speakers with different interests and areas of expertise presented at the conference. They included scientists, artists, and founders of various biohacking labs.

One of the more prominent speakers was Stanford’s Andrew Drew Endy, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering, who has been named one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire. He has been collaborating extensively with the biohacking community and is known for supporting the concept of open science and cross-disciplinary innovation.

Biohackers for Innovation in Medicine

Are some people suffering and dying needlessly because of excessive bureaucracy and the financial interests of certain companies and individuals? This question is often posed by biohackers. Medically related research is, therefore, becoming increasingly vital within the DIY Bio community. The idea of making medical care and medication easier to access is compelling, and biohackers are hoping to make life-saving drugs available to everyone.

Open Insulin, for example, is a project run by a team of biohackers who are looking into developing a new version of insulin that would be more economical and more widely available. The project is gaining momentum, and a wider community is recognizing their altruistic motives.

Currently, there is no generic insulin available, and many patients, particularly in less developed regions of the world, go without. This puts them in danger of developing diabetes-related complications, such as blindness, nerve and kidney damage, cardiovascular problems, and even death. Industrial protocols for insulin production are complex and often out-of-date, so the Open Insulin team is aiming to develop a simpler version that will be freely available to anyone.

This is a multi-stage process. Stage 1 will encompass insertion of an optimized DNA sequence into E.coli bacteria to induce the bacteria to produce insulin precursors. This will be followed by verifying that human proinsulin has been produced. In the later stages, the active insulin form will be developed. The project’s participants are all volunteers, and all funds raised for Open Insulin are purportedly used directly on their research activities.

Open Insulin has also been endorsed by Josiah Zayner, Ph.D., CEO and founder of The Odin, who is a big advocate of democratization in science and medicine. Zayner’s own biohacking company is producing low-cost CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) kits, which contain a gene-editing system and can modify the DNA of organisms. The experiments they enable can be applied in a variety of ways, ranging from personal health to improving the brewing process of beer. To get you started, CRISPR kits come complete with an example experiment that teaches the user about some basic molecular biology and gene engineering techniques. Alternatively, you can also choose to purchase The Odin’s kit that allows you to engineer your own fluorescent yeast.

Zayner used his own innovations to help manage his chronic gastrointestinal issues. He personally conducted a full-body microbiome transplant. Microbiome consists of trillions of microorganism and includes a lot of bacteria that are found throughout our bodies: on the skin, in the gut, nose, mouth, etc.

Zayner replaced his unhealthy microbiome with a healthy version from a donor. This included ingesting the donor’s fecal samples, which were placed inside a sterile capsule. The procedure could be paralleled to a fecal transplant, albeit a more nonconventional version. Zayner’s endeavors have proved to be very beneficial for him. However, his techniques might not necessarily be accepted in a traditional medical setting for a variety of reasons.

From State-of-The-Art Research Facilities to Garage Labs

Often, biohackers are working at home, from their living rooms or garages. Instead of having to follow institutional guidelines and regulations, they have the freedom to research in the direction they choose. They work alone or in small groups, and sometimes involve a professional scientist who can provide guidance.

There are some drawbacks to biohacking, however. Wetware materials, for example, can be difficult to obtain if you do not have institutional access. Taq polymerase is one such material — this is a thermostable DNA polymerase needed for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) involved in DNA amplification.

A big part of the biohacking community’s mission is education. Hands-on courses enable members of the public to learn from experts, so they, too, can later contribute to science. In 2010, the first community biotechnology laboratory, called Genspace, was opened in Brooklyn, New York. As with many other DIY Bio initiatives, it was started by a group of enthusiastic scientists. This grassroots movement promotes citizen science and encourages its members to work on their own projects and explore their ideas. Genspace courses are taught by experts with doctoral degrees, and the membership is $100 a month, which includes 24/7 access to facilities, equipment, and volunteer staff.

Counter Culture Labs are Oakland’s own biohacking and citizen science community. They, too, offer their members a fully equipped molecular biology laboratory. They are planning to include a BioSafety level 2 lab in the future, which will enable them to work on human cells and isolate new bacterial organisms.

If you want to find your local biohacking lab, there are multiple listed in North America, as well as some locations worldwide. DIY Bio opportunities might be closer than you think.

The concept of biohacking is now even potentially transcending the boundaries of traditional labs. Portable, lunchbox-sized, laboratories might become available. Bento Lab is one such example. This is a basic DNA analysis lab that includes all the essential tools for molecular biology. It allows you to take biological samples, extract DNA and perform a basic DNA analysis. It includes a thermocycler, centrifuge, and DNA electrophoresis box, making it a ready-to-go laboratory kit, packed in a handy box that resembles a laptop.

Bento Lab co-founders Philipp Boeing and Bethan Wolfenden raised funds for the lab through a Kickstarter campaign. When Bento Lab is able to ship its product, the innovation might be particularly suited for school-based labs as well as biohacking enthusiasts.

Is Biohacking Safe?

Some critics are concerned about the safety of garage labs and argue that biohacking could potentially be dangerous, especially when working with live organisms. This type of activity is not regulated, which is both its advantage and disadvantage.

On one hand, biohackers unrestrained by government regulations can push the boundaries of science further. On the other hand, some fear that potentially dangerous microbes could be created in their labs. However, biohacking does not seem to have evolved to the state where it is dangerous yet, and it is highly unlikely that do-it-yourself biologists could engage in transformative genetics projects. Biohackers themselves promote a form of supervision through transparency and peer-review.

This could, however, change if scientists start editing human genes and modifying human organisms.  The benefits and risks of such procedures (for example, changing the human embryo) are very complex and require close ethical scrutiny. This applies to all settings that might undertake such experiments, including regulated labs. Many experts oppose all work that could lead to genetically modified humans. This September, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics — an independent organization that advised policymakers — published an ethical review on genome editing. In their report, they warn about the way genome-editing organisms might be managed outside of regulated environments and specifically refer to amateur scientists who now have access to inexpensive online kits.

Many biohacking labs only work with bacteria that are deemed safe. For instance, Genspace uses only non-pathogenic organisms and does not work with human cells. They also cooperate with an external safety advisory board. In line with this, some experts suggest society should allow biohacking technology to progress while monitoring its developments, so these efforts have a better chance of leading to positive outcomes as they continue.

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Article Sources

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