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 facilitating citizen participation in science. Community-access laboratories, thriving online skills-share forums, volunteer data collection opportunities in collaboration with established scientific institutions, and more affordable purchasing of lab equipment and reagents all make science more and more accessible to all.
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. Experiments may be independent projects or collaborations with scientific institutions, the latter often consigning civilians to roles in volunteer mass data collection. Independent projects in biological tinkering, known colloquially as biohacking, are more adventurous and can encompass anything from the mundane (self-experimenting with diet and sleep patterns) to the more daring (embedding magnetic strips just under fingertips for better integration with digital devices) to the controversial extremes (such as when AIDS patient Tristan Roberts injected himself with untested gene therapy). Although the most common form of non-invasive genetics tinkering involves user-friendly genetic “circuit” kits for bacteria where DNA sequences can taken apart and rearranged like building blocks, the advent of CRISPR as a new and affordable option further increases opportunities for experimentation. Contrary to the popular belief of a lone mad scientist with a garage lab, 92% of biohackers carry out experiments with the use of a community lab and communicate extensively with the international biohacking community.
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. 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, thus simultaneously fostering a closer community as well as discouraging lone wolf biohackers.
Furthermore, the very product of its innovations differ greatly in the amount of risk it may pose to a consumer. Unlike the non-physical threats of viruses, identity theft and computer security compromises that the computer revolution pose – where the worst that could directly happen is financial damage and information leaking – biotechnology has the potential to incur more physical harm, especially when applied to a vulnerable population of patients – thus justifying exponentially more testing and trials. 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.
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.
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Written by Angela Dong (Honours Health Sciences, Class of 2020).