Would you want to hack your body?

While working on a podcast – “Are we opening a Pandora’s box with at-home DNA tests?” I came across before unheard term that intrigues me – biohacking. I found out about it and got my first impression from the Netflix mini-documentary series Unnatural Selection that aims to enlighten viewers about advancements in the making of gene engineering technologies. So firstly, what is biohacking? Cambridge dictionary defines it as “scientific experiments with biological material, especially genes, done by people who are not official experts or scientists, either as a hobby or in order to make money or commit crime.” But because this term is debated over and in some cases arguably include also healthy lifestyle followers (using supplements and extreme diets to improve their bodies), it is an unexpectedly broad term that could apply to even some quite ancient behavior. The word biohacking itself is relatively new and was introduced only in the second health of the twentieth century. The connotation of computer hacking is arguable since inventions sooner or later find their way to become metaphors.

“Amateur biotechnologists, cyborgs and supporters of a healthy lifestyle all associate themselves with the term biohacking.”

Peter Joosten, “The beginner’s guide to biohacking”

Biohacking activity happens mostly outside conventional institutions, but there are also communities with lab equipment and workshops. Biohackers aims to increase science literacy, and that can be achieved in different ways. Some of them watch almost all the information they can find on the internet and try to put it into practice and do it entirely ‘underground.’ While others have conferences and even a standard code of ethics. The advent of the internet makes it possible that they also form online communities. In her TED talk, Ellen Jorgensen states that specific biohacking communities added a distinct cultural flavor to experiments. Moreover, they diminish academics’ stagnation, almost all sterilizing, funding oriented, and equalizing ivory tower.

Judging from the documentaries and articles written on biohacking, very often, the name Josiah Zayner comes up. He previously worked for NASA but is currently a founder and owner of The Odin, a company that sells the equipment needed for at-home genetic experiments. After Josiah Zayner’s talk in one of the biohacker conferences, he got quite famous because he injected himself with an experimental treatment made possible due to CRISPR technology in the presence of live and online audiences. CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that allows you to change part of the DNA sequence with desirable information. Most of the documentaries showing experiments connected to biohacking advise not to try this at home, which is quite ironic.

As Josiah Zayner, some biohackers have PhDs connected to biology. To add, sometimes biohackers are not necessarily interested in experimenting on human bodies. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that experimentation with gene engineering has already been utilized by some artists. For instance, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg recreated the smell of flowers that got extinct due to human activity. Some people attend special workshops to learn how to, for example, make furniture out of fungi and use the advancements of gene engineering to fight global warming.

Humans have a history of reacting to new life-changing inventions quite radically, firstly usually followed by a lot of hatred or confusion about questionable benefits. Not so long ago, people doubted why we should have personal computers and what would be the advantages of it. But personal computers proved useful, so why not explore biohacking and realize that personal biotech has not only scary bad things to offer.

On the other hand, the fact that you can now, after getting yourself acknowledged with a bit of genetic engineering 101 information and ordering CRISPR kits, start the experiments does not mean that you necessarily should. We have to recognize that the risk of doing such experiments could be life and earth ecosystem threatening.

Many people (myself included) are afraid of playing God with gene-engineering and changing nature, thinking that it is something static. We should acknowledge that as long as there were technologies, we kept changing what we define as nature. Similarly, the internet keeps reshaping what it means to be human, so why would biotechnologies be an exception.

Sources:

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/biohacking

https://nextnature.net/magazine/story/2019/the-beginners-guide-to-biohacking

https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/6/25/18682583/biohacking-transhumanism-human-augmentation-genetic-engineering-crispr

https://strivediary.com/biohacking-conferences/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josiah_Zayner

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CRISPR

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3 Comments

  • Domnica Predescu
    Posted November 26, 2020 at 10:48 am 0Likes

    Hey Aleksa!
    so to be fair, I was a bit reluctant to even comment or voice my thoughts after reading your blog post, as I know fairly little about biotechnology and manipulating one’s genes.
    Just like you mentioned in your conclusion, I believe playing God with one’s own genes is a scary thought and something I would personally not venture into. However, I do think the advancement of what it means to humans because of the biotechnological possibilities are indeed very interesting to follow. I also wonder what these scientific advancements mean for our general development as a species? Can we now control and better influence who is the “fittest” as Darwin says? Do you think at some point it will be possible to ensure that through biohacking we will all survive the different factors that would test our survival capabilities?
    I do not know. But then again, what about the massive imbalance these genetic experiments would create in our ecosystem? It is definitely scary to think that one day we will be able to create the ‘perfect’ human (whatever perfect might be defined as) and see how its existence further affects the environment we live in.
    Then again, one could argue that we already use bioengineering to some extent, in cases such as determining a cancerous gene or IVF insemination. This is also a way of tackling the ‘normal flow of life’ through science.
    My biggest fear is, knowing the human way and our neverending curiosity, that once biohacking proves to be safe and affordable, we will not stop and will not take into consideration the invisible line of “moral responsibility” we feel regarding our interfering in nature’s ways.

  • Emma
    Posted December 17, 2020 at 11:06 pm 0Likes

    Hi! Interesting topic! I knew nothing about biohacking before I read your post, and I did some reading afterwards. I totally agree with you on the point of playing God with genes. I think it is, although we know that genetic engineering has been around for a while,
    absolutely fascinating that it is now something people can work with from home. But it is more of a morbid fascination. To use CRISPR on yourselves or what you want to use it on, to just experiment as a hobbyist, goes quite far. I understand the part where people want to make science accessible and spread science literacy to those that are interested. But I think that the part where you’re in this case actually experimenting with genetics becomes the part where you should just leave the experimentation to those in a professional lab. The availability of a home-kit makes me think of stereotypes of mad science-obsessed family members with a hobby that got out of hand, but this is a version that sounds far more extreme than just that, and rather makes me think of a ‘science hobby’ in a Frankenstein way, to make an exaggerated comparison.
    As far as the actual science application of CRISPR goes, I read there has been some experimentation with medical treatments using CRISPR on mice and adult humans. I believe that the ethical debate around applying genetic modification to humans will probably outweigh the chance of it being applied more anytime soon. It’s a very interesting discussion but I again completely agree that, as questions arise on the possibility of people for example misusing genetic modification for enhancements, it’s better to, for now, leave the human genome as it is.

  • FionaGarcia
    Posted December 18, 2020 at 5:45 pm 0Likes

    Thank you Aleksa for this interesting post!
    To be honest, I am not the most knowledgeable when it comes to biohacking, but I can certainly say that the CRISPR at-home kits sound like a recipe for disaster. The possibility of people using these kits without the required knowledge sound like straight out of a horror movie, as we do not know what the long-term effects might be.
    Also while reading your post I could not help but think of it as a more extreme way of doping. This way of thinking about biohacking makes me question the ethicalities of the practice. Will it be used for good by helping people who suffer from health-related problems? Or will it be used to help a select group of privileged people advance?
    I do not think that the answers to these questions will be cleared ou any time soon. So, for now, the only thing left to do is to see how this industry develops and to hope that it does so in a responsible way.

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