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Biohacking: Everything you need to know about DIY biology

Posted by Holly Williams on Apr 12, 2016 2:40:56 PM

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Organic Matter, Bio-Based World NewsIn recent years, more than any new movement in the bio-based universe, biohacking is taking over labs and living rooms to become a global bio-based phenomenon. Biohacking is as varied as it is spectacular.

Holly Williams, Editorial Team at Bio-Based World is here to guide you through this explosive new trend.

Biohacks are part of an invigorated democratic system of innovation and discovery currently being carried out by a range bright minds working across disused warehouses, small labs and even in people’s own converted household centres for experimentation.

The idea is simple – To biohack, a person takes on the gauntlet of ‘do it yourself’ biology, and it’s taking the industry by storm.

So what is Biohacking?

Biohacking is a reasonably new movement that has seen an increased interest in bio-based processes and inventions, creating a wave of change and fresh experimental thinking across bio-based networks.

A biohack is popularly understood fundamentally as a kind of citizen science or do-it-yourself biology. It breaks into tradtional spheres of bio-based innovations and offers the chance to invent to the public at large. The process is simple: pick a project and rigorously chase a new application and solution outside of work-based goals. This is a challenge that a soaring number of brainy individuals are committed to succeed in and the results are both varied and unprecedented.

CSIRO_ScienceImage_1175_Forestry_scientist.jpgBiohacks are generally characterised as bio-based projects developed on a budget with a keen focus on solid results as opposed to expensive processes or equipment, in the vein of home-grown ingenuity and problem-solving. One of the attractions of DIY biology is that you, as an individual, can ‘learn on the job’ and comfortably control your own variables and goals without the pressure of professional funding or sponsorship.

Ron Shigeta, Chief Science Officer at Indie BIO @indbio explains the appeal; Biohacking is “a freedom to explore biology, kind of like you would explore good fiction" and "hacking is kind of like the freedom to sort of dig deep into something, just because you’re interested in it… The whole idea of biohacking is that people feel entitled, they feel the ability to just follow their curiosity – where it should go – and really get to the bottom of something they want to understand.”

As Plato said, "science is nothing but perception," and without the pressure of professional goals or the narrow interests of funding bodies, biohackers are free to pursue discoveries that may not suit financial or social objectives but simply fulfil a natural curiosity on a specialist topic.

This freedom to explore is a crucial element in the progress of scientific development. The process of discovering an innovation by incident or accident has well-established value in the history of ideas, such as the accidental discovery of life-changing discoveries including penicillin, radioactivity, smartdust or day-to-day house-hold products like the microwave or Teflon, all discovered while expecting a different result.

London Biohackspace, Bio-Based World NewsBiohacking projects can be anything bio-based and this movement, in recent years, has seen interest particularly in DNA and gene testing. There is currently a trend for biohack projects tasked with discovering how plant DNA affects growth, specifically how to manipulate plant genes.

Local biohackers, the London Biohackspace, is at the forefront of this change. The London Biohackspace @LondonBioHack is a forum and community-run molecular biology and microbiology lab based at the London Hackspace (see pictured). The lab has been developed around the principles of the DIYbio code of ethics; that is, its primary purpose is to provide access to lab equipment and bench space, for use in a safe manner, for individual or collaborative projects.

The strength of this and other biohacking and DIYbio communities is the diversity of its members - London Biohackspace hopes to encourage enthusiastic amateurs and professionals with backgrounds in a broad mix of professions such as artists, engineers, biologists and programmers to achieve innovative bioscience project goals.

Recent projects from the space include ‘JuicyPrint’, a 3D printer that can be fed with fruit juice to print useful shapes made of bacterial cellulose, a strong and exceptionally versatile biopolymer. Also, another project endeavours to create a batch culture, a donation culture of a Pyrocystis fusiformis, with aim to maximise the expression of the subject’s naturally bioluminescent properties.

In other parts of the world, another biohack innovator is riding the tide of successful biohacking projects - Eri Gentry, has founded the impressive Silicon Valley biohacking venue BioCurious @biocuriouslab. The origins of this playful initiative are explained by Gentry as follows;

“The word hacker comes from MIT @MIT where hacks would be little tricks that you would play on each other, so when you’re done with your homework, you’re staying up all night, and you’ve got to have something to do, so they might coat the ceiling or the roof of a building in tin foil. So this was a hack, and hackers came to known in the 60s and 70s as the guys who were making the first computers”.

In this way, biohackers can be understood as the grass-roots pioneers of inventive, do-it-yourself bio-based innovations bourne out of mischief and invention.

Another concept of biohacking comes from an entirely separate initiative - biohacks that are far more focussed on the ascent of man. Dave Asprey @bulletproofexec, a computer security expert, considers himself as a human biohacker. Asprey's method of innovation is to hack into the body itself, starting with his own. Asprey explains his thinking;

Bio-Based World Quarterly Issue #2

“There are two perspectives on biohacking. One is that biohacking is something you do to biology, outside of yourself; you’re going to change a cell; you’re going change an amoeba and make it glow in the dark. The other perspective on biohacking, the one where I spend my time, is that you can hack your own biology, and you can gain control of systems in your body that you would never have access to.”

Asprey has recently hit the headlines by using his biohacking skills to create new technical measurement tools and to produce a low-toxic coffee tailored to physical improvement. His conception is aptly named 'Bulletproof' coffee, designed to alter his cognition, his weight and his general health when used. On a more extreme level, this biohacker even takes supplements, applies electricity to his brain and his muscles, to improve his body and his mind. The biohack becomes self-development in this application.

Philip Ross, Mushroom-Based Chair & Bricks, Bio-Based World NewsOften, bio-hacking is also aimed at creating extraordinary bio-based products as well as examining a bio-based process. One of the most impressive examples of this was created by biohacker and artist Philip Ross, part of the innovative MycoWorks @MycoNews. The project team produces bio-based furniture and building materials by feeding a certain kind of mushroom a diet of sawdust or peanut shavings to replicate the structure and stability of traditional working materials (see pictured for his finished products). These kinds of biohacking projects are undoubtedly a boon to the future of a bio-economy.

Regardless of the approach to or application of biohacking, this growing, biotechnological social movement in which individuals, communities, and start-up organisations work together outside of traditional research institutions, will see a huge rise in the study of biology and life sciences. More than that, this kind of freestyled DIY biology brings bio-based invention back into the public domain, accessible at all levels of ability and training.

So what is biohacking? Quite simply, whatever you decide.


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