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.