Wednesday, October 08, 2008

How Dangerous is Biohacking?

The Boston Globe recently had an article about DIYbio and amateur biohackers. The article quotes Tom Knight as concerned about the potential dangers:
Tom Knight, a senior research scientist at MIT who is cofounding a synthetic biology company called Ginkgo BioWorks, sees the transformative value of biohacking - the phrase used to describe doing to living organisms what computer hackers have long done with electronics. But he has reservations about putting such power into the hands of amateurs."I think if the safety issues can be addressed, there is a big opportunity," Knight said. "It's a huge issue; how do you regulate so [people] don't cause havoc.
And that is what is potentially scary: while computer viruses can significantly interfere with business or goverment operations, a badly - or malevolently - engineered bacterium or virus can kill. In a recent article in Systems and Synthetic Biology, Markus Schmidt of the Biosafety Working Group in Vienna points out that an informal hacker "code of ethics" isn't much protection:
It is true that there is a kind of informal code of ethics for the hacker community6be safe, do not damage anything, do not damage anyone, either physically, mentally or emotionally, be funny, at least to most of the people who experience it”. This hacker ethics, however, did not and could not prevent the tons of malware programmes out there in the worldwideweb. The more successful the attempts to program DNA as a 2 bit language for engineering biology become (Endy 2007) the more likely will be the appearance of “bio-spam, bio-spyware, bio-adware” and other bio-nuisances. An unrestricted biohackery scenario could put the health of a biohacker, the community around him or her and the environment under unprecedented risk. This scenario has not gone totally unnoticed in the biohacker community and some have started to show at least some interest in safety issues, asking e.g. “how to use a pressure-cooker as an autoclave” or thinking to obtain some lab safety videos.7
I have mixed feelings about regulation. While I'd prefer my next-door-neighbor not be developing potentially virulent new strains of E. coli, the regulation of at-home labs here in the US has been, IMHO, rather excessive. A case in point is that of artist Steven Kurtz, who was arrested in 2004 by the FBI as a possible bioterrorist because he was preparing an art installation in his home that involved nonpathogenic bacteria. He was finally cleared of charges in April of this year.

While it may sound like science fiction, biohacking is here and we should start thinking about if and how it should be regulated. I'm hoping that we figure out some kind of medium between assuming any non-scientist with a vial of bacteria is a terrorist, and letting anyone who can afford to purchase a few enzymes free reign. Maybe the solution is education. If more people understood biohacking techniques - and the possible risks - I think the risk of potentially dangerous mishaps could be minimized. Malicious hacking, on the other hand, I'm not sure we can do anything about.

Find out more about synthetic biology:
(The Globe article is via

Image: Bacterial art of Eshel Ben-Jacob, Professor of Physics at Tel Aviv University. Ben-Jacob is working on the development of a "living, learning memory chip", in which neurons in culture can be imprinted with memories. (Looks like the beginnings of another post ...)


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