Read Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat” or Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon”, and you get a glimpse into how the hacker culture that emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century revolutionized the digital world.  Will a confluence of emerging technologies—including information tech, biotech, and nanotech—lead to a similar revolution in the biological world?

Behind every computer screen is a complexity of software and hardware that together create a virtual world in which many of us spend more time living out our lives than is probably healthy—whether crunching numbers, playing games or churning out our latest blog.  This world is built in part (some would say a large part) on the work of technically savvy individuals—hackers—who have learned the art of manipulating the fundamental building blocks of the digital world.  

According to that fount of all knowledge Wikipedia, a “computer hacker is a person who enjoys designing software and building programs with a sense for aesthetics and playful cleverness.”  A big attraction of hacking is the ability to change “reality” (albeit a digital reality) by manipulating the software (and hardware in the broadest interpretation of “hacker”) that defines it. And the factors that make this possible? Easy access to knowledge and tools, and the development of global grassroots networks for information sharing.

But here’s a question: what are the chances of a biology-based hacker culture arising; enticed by the lure of tinkering with biological codes that define living systems, rather than digital codes that govern digital systems?  The answer is that it is already here.  The “biohacking” culture is alive and kicking, and already pushing the boundaries of what is possible and acceptable. 

Reading through a just-released report on the social and ethical challenges of synthetic biology commissioned by the U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (Synthetic Biology.  Social and Ethical Challenges.  PDF, 740 KB), I was particularly intrigued by a short section on what has been termed “garage biology.”  (For a succinct overview of the report , I would recommend Richard Jones’ recent blog entry at Soft Machines.)  On the subject of garage biology, authors Andrew Balmer and Paul Martin of the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham had this to say:

“As DNA sequencing becomes cheaper and quicker and second hand equipment becomes available on eBay the power to create synthetic sequences may be dispersed to many individuals and groups.  Biohackers have also become known by the portmanteau ‘biopunk’ (biotech punk), that has its origins as a science fiction genre.  The most recent, and significant addition to this movement has been the online publication of a ‘Primer for Synthetic Biology’, a manual, written in simple, non-technical language, for those wishing to engage themselves in some bio hacking.”

With my interest piqued, I went on-line to check out the “biopunk” community.  A quick search brought up this recent comment from a teenager on the website:

“A few weeks ago I had somebody in school complaining about her eating disorder, Ceiliacs disease or something, and how she can’t eaten certain foods because of it. She has mentioned this before, and frankly I was tired of it, so I spent just *20* minutes on the internet during my lunch period and found a cure hidden in the patent database, and then told her how to use and then and to get the materials she needs from implement the solution in some gastrointestinal bacteria and cure it herself. Problem freakin’ solved.” []

I have no idea whether synthetic biology is as accessible to the masses as this comment would imply (I suspect not).  But clearly there is a growing culture of people interested in playing with genetic software and hardware in much the same way as conventional hackers play with computer software and hardware.  And this is being spurred on by increasingly easy access to tools and knowledge within a growing grassroots community.  

Additional parallels between digital and biological hacking abound.  For instance, one of the drivers behind the development of the digital world most of us now inhabit was the open source movement, providing open access to computer code on the understanding that hackers shared any improvements made to the code with the rest of the world.  Similar movements are growing up around synthetic biology, with the significant difference being that the “code” is now biological.  A good example is the BioBricks Foundation that is developing an open source registry of standard biological parts that can be used to “program living organisms in the same way a computer scientist can program a computer.”

While only time will tell whether the biopunk movement will have the same impact on synbio as the hacker culture had on the digital world (and there are plenty of skeptics out there who are doubtful), the idea of “hacking biology” appeals to plenty of people.  Especially where it brings within their grasp tools that enable engineering-based concepts to be applied to biological systems.  Drew Endy—a leading proponent of synthetic biology—had this to say in a recent interview:

“Programming DNA is more cool, it’s more appealing, it’s more powerful than silicon. You have an actual living, reproducing machine; it’s nanotechnology that works. It’s not some Drexlarian (Eric Drexler) fantasy. And we get to program it. And it’s actually a pretty cheap technology. You don’t need a FAB Lab like you need for silicon wafers. You grow some stuff up in sugar water with a little bit of nutrients. My read on the world is that there is tremendous pressure that’s just started to be revealed around what heretofore has been extraordinarily limited access to biotechnology.” [Edge, issue 237, February 19 2008]

While the debate surrounding the social and ethical development and use of synthetic biology tends to focus on issues such as bioterrorism, uncontrolled releases, global justice and the creation of “artificial life,” it is quite possible that a successful biopunk movement will change the context within which this debate is conducted. How do you establish a framework for socially and ethically responsible development when the person you need to reach is an adolescent teenager constructing new biological code in their basement?  

This is a major challenge to the development of safe and societally accepted synthetic biology.  Biological hacking may never develop on the scale of computer hacking —“life” might shatter our hubris by turning out to be more complex than anyone imagined.  But I do not think we can afford to be complacent here.  The four recommendations made in the BBSRC report will definitely help pave the way towards socially and ethically responsible synthetic biology: recognizing the importance of maintaining public legitimacy and support; ensuring the scientific community engage with society on the impacts of their work; pursuing partnerships with civil society groups, social scientists and ethicists; and putting in place a robust governance framework before synthetic biology applications are realized.  However, I suspect that these are just the first steps in a long process to ensure society as a whole takes responsibility for developing and using an increasing level of control over the basic building blocks of life wisely.

As a final thought, when a hacker causes the digital reality in their computer to malfunction through tinkering, they can simply reboot and start again.  It might not be so simple when hacking life itself.  This may be a flawed analogy, but it is probably something the new socioethics of synbio should address if serious mis-steps are to be avoided.



This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in June 2008

Andrew Maynard