Philipp Boeing on synthetic biology's citizen science.
In Shoreditch, residence to London artists, coffee shops and retro clothes, a group of amateur scientists and UCL students have met to engineer biology. They’re building a bacteria incubator out of a fridge box, cardboard and open source electronics. Their mission? To test the potential and limitation of biohacking – citizen science in synthetic biology.
The students are taking part in the annual international Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM ) the world’s largest synthetic biology competition. The winner will be known by the time People & Science appears. Synthetic biology describes the movement to make biology into a true engineering discipline, by introducing principles from electronic engineering and computer science to the manipulation of DNA.
One of the new tools of synthetic biology includes BioBricks – small pieces of DNA that have a specific, well understood function. These BioBricks can be combined into a ‘genetic circuit’ to give bacteria complex new functions. They are catalogued in an open online library called the Registry of Parts .This makes synthetic biology so accessible that even iGEM undergrads can do impressive research, such as engineering marine bacteria to collect plastic pollution from the ocean – this year’s iGEM entry by the UCL team.
Biohackers have declared the engineering of biology their hobby, and are trying to replicate the kind of work done by students in the iGEM competition, often using makeshift equipment and household chemicals. The movement is still in its infancy, especially in Europe, where they meet stringent regulations. Still, biohacker Cathal Garvey from Dublin has successfully applied for a licence to carry out genetic modification in his bedroom, and he is working on tools that will allow others to do the same.
Some biohackers are artists experimenting with new materials. Others want to help research rare diseases which have been neglected by companies due to their limited economical promise. Most biohackers in London are driven purely by curiosity and the desire to democratise knowledge.
Many researchers remain sceptical whether biohackers can make real contributions to science, but the community compares itself to the 70s home computer revolution in Silicon Valley. Biohackers believe that biotech will eventually be personalised just as computers have been.
Until now, BioBricks have only been made by academic groups. Through their collaboration, the UCL students supported the biohackers to create a new BioBrick of their own making. However, much of the practical knowledge required for sterile and successful experiments is transferred to students by academic supervisors, not textbooks. Accessing this expertise remains a problem for biohackers.
Safety and ethics
Asa Calow, co-founder of Manchester’s Madlab, seeks academic feedback before carrying out workshops to avoid creating unknown safety risks. He participated in a meet-up organized by the FBI to investigate the danger from biohacking. The verdict: it is unlikely that biohackers have the potential for bioterrorism. Furthermore, European biohackers met up in London last year to draft their own ethical code1 , emphasising safety, responsibility and transparency. These internal considerations of ethics are often disregarded by portraits of biohacking in the media.
Several students of the UCL team have been inspired by their experience to set up a London synthetic biology community lab2  . They envisage a space that can offer public genetic modification workshops as well as bench time for artists and biohackers to carry out their own projects in a safe environment.
Lessons from biohacking have also found their way back to academia. In Paris, undergrad students at the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires are challenged to build their own biomedical laboratory equipment. Instructor Tamara Milosevic believes this will not only increase the students’ understanding of the scientific process, but also help the students develop generic skills to apply technology.