Everyone has heard about computer hackers because of media publicity over the past 30 years. Many people don’t know that most of the early hackers were motivated primarily by curiosity — they wanted to find out how this new technology worked to see what could be done with it.
Many of these hackers had such love and respect for the technology that they would never have intentionally caused harm to the systems they explored. Yet in a lot of cases, unintentional damage did occur while they were learning about a new system.
Although many of today’s hackers still have the same mindset and report security flaws in order to improve technology, currently there is a growing percentage who use their skills to commit crimes. Some members of this new generation of hackers are willing to work for the highest bidder or for even for political activism. Computer hacking has evolved.
With any new technology, there will always be hackers who are driven by their personal curiosity to find out what makes the technology “tick.” Today we are seeing this trend involving biology.
Biohacking, or “DIY biology,” involves experiments across a wide range of projects, including body implants, exoskeletons and prosthetics, brainwave analysis and intervention, and 3-D printing of human tissue – all of which we will explore in future posts.
Another fascinating area of biohacking involves biogenetics. The project to sequence the human genome was officially completed in April 2003 at great cost. Since that time, the costs associated with DNA sequencing in the production of DNA base pairs has drastically decreased. In 2001, the cost of reading one million base pairs was around $100,000. The same cost is about ten cents today.
Currently there are new organizations making biogenetics labs accessible to almost anyone, creating a completely new generation of biogenetics hobbyists. These new biohackers are using their imagination and their curiosity about this technology to conduct interesting experiments.
One of these new labs is Genspace, a nonprofit organization located in Brooklyn, New York. Membership dues are only $100 per month, providing members access to accomplished experts and sophisticated equipment that they might not be able to afford on their own. Some of the expensive equipment available from Genspace includes polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, autoclaves, centrifuges, and incubators.
There are many other groups located around the world, and you can find links and resources at DIYBIO.org, “An Institution for the Do-It-Yourself Biologist.” Its website contains a link to “Ask a Biosafety Expert” for biohackers who have safety or security questions.
As an example of just how easy it is to create your own biogenetics lab, a group of journalists did their own research and bought equipment, chemicals, and the biological materials they needed to set up a temporary lab in their office. It cost them only $3,500 euros, just under $4,700.00 US at current exchange rates.
Amazingly, they found a lot of the equipment on e-Bay. With very little training or professional expertise, the group conducted several successful genetic experiments, including cloning the gene for the toxin ricin.
The group was very careful to carry out only legal experiments, and did not actually create ricin from the genetic material, yet they suggested it might be possible for someone to do so.
In 2006, a biogenetics experiment at the Stony Brook University Medical School synthetically produced the poliovirus using DNA.
Dr. George Church, professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School, sees an unlimited potential for genetics research. Dr. Church said, “We can now replace petroleum for fuels, chemicals, plastics, antibiotics and so forth. We can now start making those with biologically-engineered items.”
There are currently many very large companies like Google and other research labs working on these new technologies alongside groups of do-it-yourself biohackers. What I do not see are investigators talking about the potential these new technologies could create for abuse, and how we might address safety and the law related to this science.
Bio-Assassins like Lisa in our previous blog post don’t currently exist, but as this technology becomes cheaper and easier to obtain, how much longer will this be true?
I agree that more government regulation would probably drive the DIY biohacker underground, and might also discourage people from making positive contributions to biogenetic sciences. I am certainly not saying that all biohackers are evil or irresponsible.
But we also need to discuss what should be done to modify the legal system as well as our own investigative practices to prepare for these new types of investigations for when something does occur.
Because someone will either make an unintended mistake…or might decide to create Lisa.
Is it possible to hack your brainwaves? That’s what we will talk about in the next post.
If you would like the links to some of the items referenced in this blog post, contact me by email at Walt (dot) Manning (at) InvestigationsMD (dot) com.
You can also learn about new blog posts if you follow me on Twitter at @WaltManning1.