Biohackers Are Not Frankenstein

Jordan Reimschisel
Jul 6, 2018 · 8 min read

The lone, mad scientist tinkering in his dark laboratory and creating a monster, either intentionally or not, frequently shows up as a character type in different genres and mediums throughout history. The most famous example is undoubtedly found in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein.

Victor Frankenstein, the title character, develops a secret technique to impart life to non-living matter. He attempts to create and animate a humanoid. Victor succeeds in imparting a human intellect to the creature, but he fails to also pass on the beauty and grace of the human form. After the creature experiences the evil and hatred the world expresses towards it because of its hideous appearance, it reciprocates those impulses and murders Frankenstein’s brother.

Frankenstein’s monster has become a symbol of the unintended, destructive consequences that can result when we ignore what the critic perceives are the appointed bounds of human ability and attempt to assume the powers or authority reserved for the divine. This perception expresses itself when critics call scientific or technological advances “unnatural” and reprimand its creators for “playing God.”

Most recently, the Frankenstein theme has surfaced in debates about amateur biology enthusiasts, widely called biohackers. Critics fear that these hobbyists will unleash an epidemic brought on by powerful viruses that were tinkered with in a garage laboratory. They believe this future is practically inevitable given the perceived absence of regulations restraining the field.

This fear is unfounded. The biohacker community possesses a culture of safety, responsibility, and transparency that preempts dangerous experiments. Serious consequences are also limited by practical considerations like a lack of necessary equipment.

Instead of tighter regulation, the biohacker community ought to be encouraged and recognized for its contributions to safety and science-education.

National Academies’ Report

Last month, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a consensus study report commissioned by the Department of Defense titled Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology.

Considering the rapid advances over the past couple decades in the field of synthetic biology (defined in the report as the “concepts, approaches, and tools that enable the modification or creation of biological organisms”), the Department of Defense asked the National Academies to assess how concerned the military should be about these advances, and to develop a framework to evaluate security concerns related to synthetic biology.

The authors concluded that synthetic biology offers benefits in the form of new medical treatments and improving agriculture; but also the potential for harm by lowering the barriers to developing and using deadly biological weapons, thus expanding the scope of those able to obtain such weapons.

The report pointed out that the wide availability of biotechnological tools has increased the susceptibility of synthetic biology to misuse. It specifically mentioned the biohacking community as proof of the expanding number of pathways to advanced biological experimentation. Inexpensive kits allowing amateurs to experiment with the gene-editing technology CRISPR can be purchased online. These tools have allowed biohackers to undertake projects previously reserved for professional scientists. Many of these projects involve engineering plant and animal cells. The report notes that because “a relatively untrained individual” can accomplish complex bioengineering, experts have become concerned that a community lab will soon unknowingly host a rogue scientist creating a bioweapon.

The report does not explicitly recommend implementing regulations that would quash the activities of amateurs and community labs, as recommendations of that nature were outside its scope. It also contains several caveats explaining that it would be difficult for the average biohacker to create a dangerous weapon using the equipment and supplies available to them in a community lab. The study does its best to remain balanced and academic in tone.

Still, the report uses the biohacker movement to suggest that America’s current strategies to protect against the catastrophic misuse of biology may be insufficient. Traditionally, generally agreed upon norms and voluntary guidance governed the practice of science, along with formal regulation. As science, specifically biology, becomes more accessible to amateurs, demonstrated by the growth of the biohacker movement, self-governance mechanisms become more untenable.

This line of reasoning betrays a mistrust of the abilities of amateurs to hold themselves to a high standard of safety and responsibility. It also includes a belief that simply because they have not been formally trained in a graduate program, they are more susceptible to either evil intentions or catastrophic failure during an experiment.

New York Times Article

In May, the New York Times published a long article on the continuing growth of the biohacker movement. The title betrayed the author’s view of the movement: “As D.I.Y. Gene Editing Gains Popularity, ‘Someone Is Going to Get Hurt.’”

The story opens by introducing a brilliant teenager who works as a research fellow at Stanford and operates a “cutting-edge research laboratory” in a corner of his bedroom. The teen acknowledges that the current regulation of scientists operating outside the walls of institutions like Stanford are “simply [not] good enough.” He believes that the current framework will break down at a time in the future.

The article likewise worries that somewhere soon someone will use biotechnology to create a catastrophe. It points out that a team from University of Alberta has already revived horsepox, a virus closely related to smallpox, by joining several fragments of mail-order DNA. All this without attracting attention from law enforcement.

The author also includes a quote from Harvard geneticist Dr. George Church, a world-renowned expert on synthetic biology. Church states that something deadly could be released “any day now.” Furthermore, “[a]nyone who does synthetic biology should be under surveillance, and anyone who does it without a license should be suspect.”

The story also envisions a future when any biohacker will be able to print genetic sequences at home using technology akin to an ink jet printer. Again, the author points out that a similar device already exists and is available to well-funded institutional labs. It is called the BioXp 3200. Home enthusiasts can purchase ready-made gene-editing experiments from online company The ODIN or from Amino Labs. Such tools may be dangerous in the wrong hands.

The piece concludes, like the National Academies report, without explicitly calling for increased regulation, but suggesting that more is needed. The last paragraphs feature Lawrence Gostin, an adviser to the World Health Organization. He says the only catastrophes that could wipe out millions of people are nuclear and biological weapons. It baffles him that “the U.S. government fears and prepares for the former, but not remotely for the latter.”

A Culture of Safety and Responsibility

Both of these recent reports mislead the reader into believing the biohacking movement is more dangerous than it is; and thus that it needs more surveillance, licensing, or other form of serious regulation.

Self-regulation, especially in the form of cultural norms, is a powerful way to prevent catastrophe and ought not to be downplayed. Culture (by this I mean values and practices that are held in common by a group) has been an important guide for scientists and technologists. Voluntary agreements and best practices form the basis for governance in many emerging industries like autonomous vehicles and drones. These mechanisms also guided much of the crucial, early development of the internet.

From the beginning, biohackers have instituted norms of safety and responsibility. Daniel Grushkin, the co-founder of biohackerspace Genspace in New York City, explains that those few biohackers performing on-camera stunts like injecting themselves with experimental CRISPR therapies do not represent the vast majority of the movement. Most biohackerspaces adhere to the biosafety guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Some have even posted rules designed to be more cautious than those of the CDC. Grushkin also notes that, from the beginning of the movement, community lab leaders accepted a common code of ethics to govern the conduct of anyone who used the lab space. They also established a system to provide professional biosafety consulting to any biohacker that needed advice.

Biohackers also recognized that observers could misunderstand their intentions. In the United States, community labs have cultivated a relationship with the FBI to encourage mutual respect and openness. In 2009, the agency sponsored both a booth and a biosafety workshop at the iGEM biohacking competition in Boston. They also held several meetings in the years following meant to establish relationships and lines of communication between biohackers and agents in the counter terrorism division. Since then, FBI agents “have generally been welcome” in American biohacking circles. This relationship has convinced the agency that biohacking does not pose a terrorism threat.

In light of these influential norms, it is highly unlikely that any bioterrorist will be associated with established biohackerspaces.

Limitations on Terrorist Abilities

Additionally, there are institutional and technical limits on the amount damage that a hobbyist biohacker using a community lab could cause. Alexander Murer, the founder of an Austrian biohackerspace, says there is no “relation or conncetion whatsoever between terrorism and biohacking.” The movement centers around open, transparent community labs and group activities. Criminal experiments are likely to be spotted by other members and reported to the authorities before any damage could be done. Murer says it is much more likely that established terrorist groups, military forces, or rogue countries would unleash a bioweapon, not “biohackers having fun in their basements with cheap equipment.”

Murer’s comments underscore the technical limitations facing would-be terrorist biohackers. The organisms that biohackers use for their experiments, and the organisms available in most online kits, are overwhelmingly non-pathogenic Escherichia coli or yeast specifically adapted for lab use. Any specimen that managed to escape its petri dish would almost certainly perish in the harsh, real-world environment. Even the National Academies’ report recognized that most biohacker projects “are not sophisticated” and would require “advanced skills and additional laboratory resources” to create a harmful agent capable of any serious health consequences. In the words of Genspace co-founder Ellen Jorgenson, “Our capabilities are overestimated, and our ethics are underestimated.”

Companies selling custom-made DNA fragments also offer additional safeguards. The experience of the university researchers attempting to recreate the horsepox virus in the Times article would be quite different than an independent biohacker trying to do the same. The editorial board at Nature Biotechnology noted that this biohacker would have difficulty convincing a synthesis company to sell them DNA fragments that bear similarities to a known pathogen. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the biohacker would possess the necessary specialized equipment, containment facility, or knowledge to develop a fully functional synthetic virus like horsepox even if they managed to obtain the necessary DNA fragments. The board admitted that such a feat is difficult even for highly trained professionals in well-endowed academic labs.

These barriers will likely induce the majority of terrorists to avoid trying to release a synthetic pathogen created in a garage and to choose a more conventional method of destruction. Virologist Eckard Wimmer comments that bioterrorism is tricky. “It is easier if you blow up something.”

We Are Missing the Biohacker’s Contributions

Not only is the biohacking movement unlikely to cause serious harms, but it is also a source of positive good.

As Grushkin explains, biohacking is based on principles of open-access, curiosity, and community. Grushkin’s own biohackerspace offers summer camps for students from under-resourced schools in the area who do not have opportunities for hands-on science learning. Biohackerspaces open an avenue to serious science that does not require a tribute of $40,000 per year or five to seven years of servitude as a student in an academic lab. Such learning opportunities are especially important at a time many are calling the age of the life sciences.

Inhibiting these societal benefits for the sake of possibly protecting against a highly unlikely disaster is a poor trade-off.

Conclusion

We ought to be celebrating spaces in which teaching the next generation about the value of science and the beauty of the natural world is inherent in their mission. In a time of intense partisanship, any institution that can unite neighbors from all backgrounds around a shared experience, an enjoyable activity that induces awe and wonder, and teaches deep truths about the universe should be protected, respected, and encouraged.

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