Will Biohacking Echo the Personal Computer Revolution?

Thanks to the growing open science movement – a societal shift where barriers between scientific institutions and the general population break down and there is increased hands-on involvement of laypersons in scientific research and innovation – there has been an explosive increase in infrastructural resources supporting citizen science.

Community-access laboratories, thriving online forums and science community outreach, and more affordable purchasing of lab equipment and reagents all make science more accessible to the everyday person.[1] As a result, many more non-scientists are able to carry out experiments, for reasons varying from educational to pure hobbyist enjoyment to the development of entrepreneurial prototypes. Citizen science participation can be independent projects or in collaboration with scientific institutions, the latter involving citizens primarily by outsourcing mass data collection to lay volunteers.

Independent projects may be more adventurous – biological tinkering popularized by the growing biohacking movement can encompass experiments that run the gamut for risk. Encompassing the mild (lifestyle self-experimentation involving specialized diet and sleep routines) to the extreme (such as self-testing unregulated gene therapy in the case of AIDS patient Tristan Roberts, or embedding magnetic strips under fingertips for better device integration), one gets a sense for the creativiety unleashed with the harnessing of biotechnology potential. Although the most common form of biological tinkering involves genetic “circuit” kits for bacteria where DNA sequences can be built and taken apart similar to LEGO blocks, the advent of CRISPR as a new and affordable option further increases options for experimentation.[2] [3]

With this explosion of technological innovations, resources and popularity, many speculate that the biohacking movement will parallel the computer revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. However, biotechnology innovation is not as simple as computer technology due to its need for cost-prohibitive lab equipment, highly specialized knowledge, and safety training.[4] Although lab equipment costs are projected to fall over the next few years thanks to the invention of better and more cost-effective technology as well due to a significant number of biohacking projects centering around revamping industrial lab equipment into personal-use products6, biohacking essentials are highly unlikely to be as accessible and affordable as the personal computer was. Community labs, with their shared-access equipment, pose as a better alternative for price-conscious tinkerers and shape the philosophy of the movement through this dependency on community.[5] 

Furthermore, the very product of its innovations differ greatly in the amount of risk it may pose to a consumer. Unlike the computer hacking movement that drove tech innovation, with its greatest direct risks being compromising of data and corrupting of usually intangible systems, biotechnology’s physical risks to users and the general public – in cases of contamination – are much greater. Especially when many biotechnology products are therapeutically purposed and targeted towards a population of vulnerable patients, a misstep may be catastrophic. This justifies exponentially more testing and trials for its products akin to the pharmaceutical process of drug development, and calls for the extensive involvement of by highly regulated and trustworthy institutions. However, these stricter regulations and lengthy prototype-to-market times deter innovation by not conforming to the rapid product commercialization pace favoured by the current entrepreneurial and innovation industries.[6]

As a result of these limitations, the nascent biohacking revolution will likely not reach the breakneck pace of innovation that characterizes the tech conglomerates of Silicon Valley. Instead, theirs would progress at a cautious rate, all the better considering the higher stakes and the need for policy to catch up with high-impact, revolutionizing technology.

[1] Landrain T, Meyer M, Perez A, Sussan R. Do-it-yourself biology: challenges and promises for an open science and technology movement. Systems and Synthetic Biology [Internet]. 2013 [cited 16 January 2018];7(3):115-126. Available from: http://pubmedcentralcanada.ca/pmcc/articles/PMC3740105/

[2] de Lorenzo V, Schmidt M. The do-it-yourself movement as a source of innovation in biotechnology – and much more. Microbial Biotechnology [Internet]. 2017 [cited 15 January 2018];10(3):517-519. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5404187/

[3] The DIY dilemma. Nature [Internet]. 2013 [cited 13 January 2018];503(7477):437-438. Available from: https://www.nature.com/news/the-diy-dilemma-1.14240

[4] Sleator R. The synthetic biology future. Bioengineered [Internet]. 2014 [cited 14 January 2018];5(2):69-72. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049910/

[5] Scheifele L, Burkett T. The First Three Years of a Community Lab: Lessons Learned and Ways Forward. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education [Internet]. 2016 [cited 16 January 2018];17(1):81-85. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4798823/

[6] Humphrey A. Some issues in biotechnology commercialization. Technology in Society [Internet]. 1996 [cited 14 January 2018];18(3):321-332. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0160791X96000176

Written by Angela Dong (Honours Health Sciences, Class of 2020).

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