Safe Enough

How “Biohackerspaces” Beat the Scientific Establishment

Source: The Atlantic

In the future, believes Mackenzie Cowell, more amateur biologists and curious patients will be able to drive the advance of medicine. Cowell developed a community of like minded scientists to give these amateurs a space to make their discoveries and conduct their experiments. These open-source labs have come to be known as “biohackerspaces” and have been opened in several cities across the country. Such a radical change to the system of government- and university-backed research labs has inspired several groups to petition the government to regulate this growing movement. They argue that these community labs pose a danger to the scientists who work in them and to the public at large. Despite these arguments, the government has so far declined to take action and these biohackerspaces continue to demonstrate they are capable of regulating themselves.

Early Hiccups

Early in the development of the biohacker movement, before Cowell established his online community in 2008, government misunderstood what these biohobbyists sought to accomplish and overreacted. In 2004, Steve Kurtz, an art professor at SUNY, ordered a batch of bacteria from a geneticist in Pittsburgh to use in his new art exhibit. Fearing some kind of biological weapon, F.B.I. agents in hazmat suits surrounded Kurtz’s house and arrested him. They eventually charged him with mail fraud, sparking a four year legal battle that eventually cleared his name.

Incidents like Kurtz’s run in with law enforcement caused future biohackers to invite governmental participation to avoid such misunderstandings. When Ellen Jorgensen began designing her biohackerspace in Brooklyn called Genspace, she and her co-founders worked alongside the F.B.I to write the biosafety guidelines that governed the lab. These efforts led to a warm, working relationship between the biohackers and law enforcement. Edward You, a special agent in the F.B.I’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, said that the bioenthusiasts at Genspace did not pose any danger to the public.

Not Safe Enough

Despite ample evidence that Jorgensen and her fellow biohackers valued safety and possessed a deep understanding of biology and genetic science, watchdog organizations like ETC Group asked the government to intervene and regulate the movement. In 2013, the organization petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate some experiments undertaken by an amateur biologist named Antony Evans. In early 2013, Evans, who holds an MBA from INSEAD and has a background in mobile apps, launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create a bioluminescent plant. His vision was to genetically alter a plant to create a light source that did not require any man-made energy.

In May 2013, ETC Group sent a letter to the USDA arguing that planting these genetically modified plants all over the country would have serious environmental impacts. They cited the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biotechnical Issues and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and noted that both documents recommend relying on the precautionary principle when approaching products of synthetic biology. Since the glowing plant project was the “antithesis” of precaution, “it must be stopped.” The petition went on to recommend a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic biology products like the glowing plant until the government could conduct a thorough assessment of the various impacts of these products and establish mechanisms for considering and approving future products.

Evans defended his business venture and the USDA regulatory regime in an article written for Techonomy. He points out that the US has opted to regulate products rather than any process used to develop those products. The USDA only prohibits the sale of “noxious weeds or plant pests” and since the glowing plant is not either of those things, it is outside the jurisdiction of USDA. The department sent Evans a letter affirming that his product did not fall within the definition of a pest and that the department would not regulate it or prohibit its sale. Evans cites the reports of the UN Convention and the President’s Commission mentioned in the ETC Group’s petition and acknowledges that other countries have adopted much more restrictive approaches to genetically modified organisms. For that reason, he believes the US “is likely to dominate this burgeoning industry and reap the significant returns it will make possible for both business and society.”

Super Virus?

Dana Pearls, a senior staff member of the environmental coalition group Friends of the Earth, echoes ETC Group’s concerns. Pearls believes that tailored regulations and safety assessments are needed for all synthetic biology, no matter where it is done. But biohackerspaces are particularly dangerous because they are even more difficult to supervise than traditional labs. Her fear is that an amateur biologist will create some kind of super virus that will be allowed into the wild and will destroy ecosystems that are not equipped to handle it. Unlike a disaster like an oil spill, a virus or microorganism could keep replicating, making it extremely difficult to clean up. In order to protect against this, Pearls agrees that the precautionary principle is necessary. Scientists should have to prove to regulators that their experiments are completely safe before receiving permission to continue.

The limitations of these community labs renders this situation unlikely. Biohackerspaces, including Genspace, meet Biosafety Level 1 standards, meaning that the organisms involved in the experiments are non-pathogenic. In fact, the chances that a lab of this level would be able to create an organism that could survive outside the lab, let alone cause a dangerous epidemic, are quite small. Benjamin Rupert, a chemist and biohacker experimenting with alternate methods of creating cheese, says it will be a challenge to even keep his organisms alive. “If they escape from our vats, they’re not going to make it very far.”

Ahead of the Scientific Establishment

Dr. Todd Kuiken, a senior research scholar at the Genetic Engineering & Society Center at North Carolina State University, agrees with Rupert. In an article for Nature he writes:

The reality is that the techniques and expertise needed to create a deadly insect or virus are far beyond the capabilities of the typical DIY biologist or community lab. Moreover, pursuing such a creation would go against the culture of responsibility that DIY biologists have developed over the past five years. In fact, when it comes to thinking proactively about the safety issues thrown up by biotechnology, the global DIY-biology community is arguably ahead of the scientific establishment.

Kuiken acknowledges the coordinated development of norms and safety practices that has arisen in the biohacker community. He understands that this will not deter rouge actors who desire to create a harmful organism, but he points out that rogue individual could just as easily come from a government or university lab. The open, transparent atmosphere fostered in community labs will “reduce, if not eliminate,” the chances that someone creates a super virus and unleashes it on the public.

Positive Social Pressure

Some may describe Josiah Zayner as one of those rogue individuals. Zayner, who received his doctorate in biochemistry from University of Chicago, ran a crowdfunding campaign to supply amateur biologists with do-it-yourself CRISPR kits. He believes that biohackerspaces are too exclusive and do not go far enough to equip more people with the skills and ability to experiment with biology. He wants average consumers to be able to perform experiments in their homes using his mail-order kits.

Kuiken understands that the kits could be powerful educational tools, but believes Zayner is not adequately emphasizing safety. Both he and Tom Burkett, the founder of a biohackerspace in Baltimore, say that Zayner is bucking the consensus of the scientific community around safe practices. Lab protocols have been developed over time based on the experience and wisdom of thousands of scientists across time. They keep participants and the public safe and foster the development of medicine and science. Breaking these tested procedures, says Burkett, does the biohacker community a disservice and invites danger and increased regulation.

The social pressure to follow generally agreed upon norms can act as a powerful regulator against individuals like Zayner. Scholar and former government regulator Cass Sunstein notes that social norms are enforced through sanctions in the form of public disapproval like that voiced by both Kuiken and Burkett. In his book Permissionless Innovation, Adam Thierer offers the example of how social norms have shaped cell phone use. Patrons are discouraged from using their devices in restaurants or theatres. Many have shot angry glances towards a fellow movie goer when their ringtone begins to blare in the middle of a tense scene. The feelings of shame and embarrassment generated by such disapproval curtail unwanted behavior in the future.


Despite loud complaints from watchdog groups, biohackerspaces pose little risk to public and environmental health. The strong sense of responsibility and safety that has been fostered by the movement’s participants have resulted in a spotless record when it comes to mishaps. When other emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles and drones are being quickly regulated by government agencies, biohackerspaces have managed to fly under the radar. This impressive feat seems to be unique and should inspire confidence rather than fear.

The possibilities offered by these community labs, especially if they remain only self-regulated, are enormous. They offer anyone the chance to learn about synthetic biology and genetics and to contribute to the advancement of the field. Several ambitious individuals have even started companies offering products to consumers. These spaces could also empower patients by giving them the tools to learn about their genetic code and how to improve their lives. Allowing these labs to continue to regulate themselves as has been the regulatory approach so far will ensure further development of the biohacker movement and possibly lead to advancements led by lay people outside the normal government and university channels.