Laboratory equipment in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, INRA

How synthetic biology could benefit from the social sciences


Morgan Meyer is a researcher at IFRIS and an assistant professor at AgroParisTech. His thesis, which he defended in 2006, dealt with the relationships between amateur and professional scientists. Since then, he has been studying the DIY biology phenomenon. He has visited garage laboratories in cities such as Paris, Vienna, and Copenhagen, is on biohacking mailing lists, and keeps track of related publications and articles in the media. He was interviewed for this report.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 12/09/2014
Published on 10/14/2014

Morgan Meyer, IFRIS researcher and assistant professor at AgroParisTech. © INRA, Catherine Lucas, Mines ParisTech
Morgan Meyer, IFRIS researcher and assistant professor at AgroParisTech © INRA, Catherine Lucas, Mines ParisTech

What is the global significance of biohacking?

Morgan Meyer: Biohacking is part of the more general open science movement—itself inspired by the open source movement—which got started in the 1990s. The first group, DIYbio (which stands for do-it-yourself biology), was founded near Boston in 2008. Today, the group has around 4,000 members. Some of them work in communal laboratories: there are around 50 spread across the major cities of the world (e.g., Bangalore, Copenhagen, London, Manchester, Madrid, and Paris). In France, La Paillasse was founded in 2011; it is made up of a core of around 10 dedicated members, and there are approximately 600 people on its mailing list. Some biohackers conduct research in home labs. However, obtaining an accurate estimate is difficult, even if the movement has a number of websites and blogs. Biohackers tend to be young (25–35 years old) and come from a variety of educational backgrounds: their ranks include biologists, computer scientists, BioArtists, hackers, students, and university professors. Even if the movement describes itself as democratic, open to “amateur citizen scientists,” and driven by playful anarchy, biohacking most often attracts people with scientific training.  

What are people cooking up in their home laboratories?

Morgan Meyer: The projects being carried out in DIY labs tend to involve rather basic biology; very few are focused on synthetic biology. These general projects vary greatly in their aims: extracting one’s own DNA, running tests to detect genetic diseases, building low-cost alternatives to expensive equipment, using DNA barcodes to determine the origin of meats marketed for human consumption, manufacturing bioreactors, or creating BioArt. There are also more whimsical projects, such as making fluorescent yogurt or biodegradable ink. One commonality is that biohackers seek to set up their labs without spending much money. For example, they will convert a webcam into a microscope, turn a drill into a homemade centrifuge, or buy a used PCR machine. They have modest goals that frequently involve everyday concerns. Although fun in nature, these goals are also scientific and political; they are frequently a response to the actions of multinational pharmaceutical companies, the high cost of scientific equipment, and the restrictions imposed by intellectual property systems (e.g., the granting of patents). At the same time, the movement has ties to the commercial world: there are websites that sell used equipment, donations coming from various foundations, the resale of machinery, and small companies that sell specialized DIY tools (e.g., the LavaAmp (1) or the OpenPCR (2)). It will be necessary to see how the links between the commercial and non-commercial facets of the biohacking movement change as things develop. Although biohackers have yet to make any major intellectual contributions to the field of biology, they may nonetheless be helping the field progress in other ways. For instance, they may serve societal and educational functions by making biology more accessible to the general public and influencing the ways in which it is taught at the university level. They may inspire health-related innovations; for example, biohackers have invented biosensors that detect the presence of melamine in milk and spectrometers that detect the presence of different toxic substances. They may also have an economic role to play, if we accept the frequent comparisons made between biohackers and Steve Jobs, who also started his career by tinkering in his garage.  

What are the risks associated with this movement?

Morgan Meyer: Accidents, environmental contamination, the manufacturing of viruses: we can imagine a multitude of dangers. The risk most often mentioned in the media by experts is that to biosecurity. When questioned about these risks, the biohacker community has three responses. First, the risks associated with DIY biology are minimal because biohackers are not using dangerous products; bioterrorists have other, more accessible weapons. Second, the biohacker community has established a code of ethics (see sidebar below). Third, biohackers have created a site where questions can be submitted to biosecurity experts. Despite these efforts, the FBI is keeping a close watch on the community. Instead of placing an emphasis on surveillance and the recruitment of informants, the agency’s goal is to promote a sense of responsibility among biohackers, so that the community can better resist infiltration by parties with dangerous intentions. In 2012, the FBI held a workshop on this topic; a multidisciplinary group of experts participated in discussions regarding the changing security landscape and the major questions being raised.

(1) LavaAmpis a small portable PCR machine.

(2) OpenPCR is a kit that can be used to build your own PCR machine. It costs about $600; in contrast, a conventional PCR machine goes for around $3,000 dollars.

Scientific contact(s):

The European biohacking code of ethics

Members of the European DIYbio network took the initiative to collectively come up with a code of ethics, which was published in July 2011. It focuses on 10 principles: transparency, security, open access, peaceful aims, education, restraint, community, responsibility, respect, and accountability. There is an equivalent US code of ethics, which came out around the same time.

Biologie de garage. Matériel bricolé sur une paillasse. © Martin Malthe Borch

The potential dangers of backroom R&D

Biohacking raises ethical and security concerns. For instance, the ease with which reactants and tools can be procured has led to worries that drug cartels or bioterrorists could be taking advantage of these new DIY biotechnologies. Several strategies are being used to minimize these risks:

• In the USA, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has deemed that DIY biology presents a low level of risk. The commission has underscored that technical and financial impediments limit the scope of projects taking place outside of research institutions (1). It advocates “prudent vigilance” and a continual evaluation of developing risks. Furthermore, it recommends the implementation of general measures with regards to synthetic biology, including the revision of NIH guidelines for research involving recombinant DNA, the establishment of a federal framework under which the supply of synthetic DNA is monitored, and the creation of an emerging technologies interagency policy coordination committee on the topic, which would be placed under the aegis of the White House.  

• In France, the Délégation Générale pour l’Armement (DGA; French Defense Procurement Agency) has established a list of all of the major players in the field of synthetic biology. To monitor “high-risk” commercial orders, the General Secretariat for Defense and National Security (French acronym: SGDSN) has set up a collaboration between the companies that supply DNA devices and fragments and the officials responsible for risk management at the international level.

(1) Synthetic biology projects that result in major discoveries cost a total of 25 to 100 million dollars over 10 years and employ around 100 highly trained personnel per year. The artemisinin and hydrocortisone projects (see section 1) were on this scale.

The iGEM competition

Started by MIT in 2003, the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) competition awards prizes to groups ofstudents who create simple biological systems using a furnished set of BioBricks. For example, in 2013, a French team won the grand prize for their creation of a toolkit that could be used in the fight against tuberculosis: it contained a diagnostic test, an antagonistic bacterium, a drug screening method, and a phage system capable of inhibiting the production of antibiotic-resistant proteins.

This competition, which is a major event in the world of synthetic biology, has ties to the biohacking movement. One of the competition’s medalists started out as a member of La Paillasse, the main French biohacking group. Furthermore, starting this year, the competition has a division that is open to “citizen scientists.” Previously, you had to be a student of the sciences to participate. The FBI is one of the event’s sponsors, and biosafety, biosecurity, and ethical concerns are part of the criteria used to evaluate the projects.