DIY biology: How amateur scientists are playing with genetic code

Andrew Fazekas
Weather and Science writer
Right now, biohackers are more likely to discover tastier cheese than a super-virus. (Photo: Thinkstock)

For the uninitiated, biohacking or Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYBio) might sound like kind of creepy, more like something out of a Frankenstein movie. But the time for it appears to have arrived: amateur science enthusiasts are cutting and pasting DNA and playing with the molecular biology of organisms.

“While hacking simply refers to the idea of tinkering with something by taking it apart and playing with it, DIYBio is simply looking at biology as if it were something that anyone could do,” explained Ron Shigeta, Chief Science Officer at IndieBioSF, a DIYBio biotech accelerator in San Francisco, Calif. 

“When science takes on the hacker attitude that you can play with a technology, it frees up innovation and new kinds of discoveries can happen. People think of useful things like real-time blood alcohol monitoring, or milk produced by yeast instead of a cow.”

A big part of why it’s gaining momentum now is a new gene manipulation tool called CRISPR/CAS, which has opened up levels of accuracy in DNA work never before seen in any previous generations of gene editing methods. At the same time CRISPR/CAS is turning out to be so easy and inexpensive to use that a whole new world of DNA manipulation has opened up to amateurs who can now begin to play with them successfully too.

According to a recent article in Nature, CRISPR allows scientists to edit genes in everything from bacteria to human embryos and holds the potential to eradicate inherited genetic diseases and even resurrect extinct species of wildlife.

“There are many other ways this will impact human health such as cancer treatment through cell-reprogramming, where the immune system might be adjusted to fight tumors or viruses like HIV,” Shigeta says. 

“CRISPR/CAS is currently changing the face of research, allowing experiments to understand the role of our 20 to 25 thousand genes easier and happening at an accelerating rate.”

At the same time, it seems like DIYBio catching on with investors as well who see possibilities of inventing new types of organisms that are of direct use to industries. Shigeta says these are indeed exciting times at his company where they are involved with directly funding and creating biotech companies built around the DIYBio spirit.

“They are creating sustainable plastics, probing the genomic differences that make us individuals, defining new classes of food, cosmetics, making transparent the molecular mechanisms of the brain and so many more mind-blowing things that just keep coming,” he says.  

The entire idea draws inspiration from early electronics and computer hobbyists, Shigeta says, who would tinker with vacuum tubes, resistors or integrated circuits, then show up at clubs and show each other what they had made.  It’s hard to remember now but Apple came from a club like that, he adds. 

In just the last few years many biohacking projects have gotten successfully crowdfunded. For example nearly half a million dollars was raised on Kickstarter by the Glowing Plant project to create a company that will sell genetically engineered bioluminescent plants. Long-term ideas include creating a sustainable future that may see the possibility of growing trees that would one day light city streets instead of electrical lamps we use today.

For Johan Sosa, a software engineer, biohacking has been a passion he has been able to pursue on the side as a hobby. He specializes in looking at the molecular biology of yeast in the hopes of making it more beneficial, and one day maybe even use it as an alternative to harvesting animals to by-products.

“There is still a lot to learn as far as yeast is concerned, because once we understand biosynthesis we can use it to manufacture things that we currently use animals for,” Sosa explains.

“Humans are not always good caretakers of land and animals, so if we can duplicate biosynthesis pathways we can produce all our nutrients without having to abuse animals or destroy habitats.”

Sosa does his work in a DIY lab in Sunnyvale, Calif. called BioCurious where on a part-time basis he conducts his experiments and can get advice and share his knowledge with other like-minded amateur scientists.

Biohacking not without its critics

However all this bio-tinkering has not been without some controversy. Some in the scientific community have voiced their concerns about using these new gene-editing tools saying they still feel they don’t fully understand their full power. Arguments are made we should be asking important questions, like what exactly would be the consequences if unintended change comes into play, and what would happen to the ecosystem if a genetically manipulated animal got loose in the wild?

For the time being there are still many financial, technological and scientific hurdles that biohackers need to overcome to get anywhere close to being able to create a dangerous virus or manipulating human genomes. For now, they are more interested in making things like better tasting beer and vegan cheese.

Graphic from the Real Vegan Cheese Kickstarter showing the process involved. (Kickstarter)

Sosa focuses on the enormous potential benefits that biohacking offers with proper training and supervision.

There are some dangers of people trying to do bad things with it, but as it turns out that's very hard to do. We are much better off if more people knew how to rationally analyze and perform genetic modification,” Sosa says.

“If we could detect emerging diseases and easily make treatments and vaccines without depending on a small select group of people we are much better off. There are many more ways to fix things than to break things.”

But it’s still very early days for DIYBio, says Shigeta.  A quick search on which is a registry where current projects and local groups in the field are listed, there are only about 50 registered.  And in terms of physical spaces, there are probably only a dozen labs where it’s possible to conduct molecular biology as a citizen scientist.  

But expectations are that this will change over time as interest continues to grow.

As hobbyists continue to tinker, make discoveries and generate more interest in the field, Shigeta believes it will capture the public’s imagination just like personal computers did a generation ago.

“It’s hard to remember back when nobody knew what a computer would be good for,” he points out.

“Indeed computers seemed foreign and formidable technology at one time, but now we can't live without them. We are in a similar phase for biotechnology.”