(Bio)Hackers: Taking Over a Body Near You

image_Matthew Munson_postBy Matthew Munson

With the rise of digital computing and technology in the 21st century, scientists have made advancements that would have seemed like the work of science-fiction just a few decades ago.  One of modern technology’s most important advancements for the scientific community is the ability to instantly share information  from the comfort of your office or home.  The information superhighway has made science more accessible than ever before. This communication of information has made science less of an esoteric art, and more of a field that anybody can benefit from.

As Biochemistry, Genomics, Bioinformatics, and other fields have evolved, computers and technology have become more and more intertwined.  And as computers and technology have advanced, computer hackers have been working to modify hardware and software by their own devices to better suit them to their needs.  Although hackers have gotten a “bad rep” in popular culture, most hackers are not malicious and are often very useful as they can find bugs, innovate, and improve on what big computer companies produce. With the same idea in mind, a new movement has started to gain momentum in the past two or three years known as “biohacking.”

Biohackers are so named because they too wish to modify and improve on their chosen machine; however, for biohackers, their platform is a bit more organic.  Biohackers have theorized and actually started to work on projects ranging from at-home gene sequencing, to full-fledged technological enhancements, to the human body.  A particular subcategory of biohacking, known as the DIY (Do-it-Yourself) Biology movement, is of particular interest to me.

The DIY biology movement takes advantage of the fact that virtually all scientific information is available somewhere on the internet (whether or not it’s free is another story, but most is), as well as the fact that a good amount of the useful biological experiments the average person would be interested in are relatively cheap nowadays.  A pioneer and proponent of the DIY biology movement is Ellen Jorgensen, one of the founders of the company, Genspace.  Genspace is a nonprofit organization that operates one of the first community biology labs in Brooklyn, New York.  There, any community member has access to a full-fledged BSL I Laboratory for about the same price as a monthly gym membership.  The beauty of DIY biology is that cheap, simple experiments can be thought up by anyone, and put into practice with the help of people like Dr. Jorgensen and her team.  She explains this concept more in her TED Talk, which I highly recommend to anyone interested.

Dr. Jorgensen is among the first of these entrepreneurs. Other DIY biologists have opened up community labs in other cities and the movement is gaining momentum.  These organizations can provide invaluable community awareness and outreach, especially in places where public education may not be top notch, and children may need to see just how fun and useful biology and science can be before they’ll take an interest.  After all, twenty years ago nobody could have possibly imagined how powerful and commonplace the personal computer was going to be.  There’s no telling what great things will come out of giving everyone (not just scientists lucky enough to have funding for research and lab space) the tools to make biology their own.  If Apple computers started in a garage, and Facebook started in a college dorm room, the mind boggles to think what someone may discover in their friendly, neighborhood science lab.

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