Garage Biohacking: A Really Bad Idea
By: Scott Aughenbaugh
Biohacking, a quasi–do it yourself editing process on living organisms, is further along than you may think. As Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, recently said, “A few years ago this would be Nobel Prize–winning stuff. Now you can do it in a kitchen.” Case in point: Synbiota, a Toronto-based biotech organization, recently unveiled a new kit to hack E. coli for $395. While several of today’s most important companies likewise started out of a garage (such as Apple, Amazon, and Google), providing biohacking capability to the general public presents unwanted security challenges in the near and long term.
In the near term, hacking of E.coli may seem harmless. However, someone with the means and access to our food could attempt to use the commercially available biohacking kit with the deadlier H30-Rx strain of E.coli, which is responsible for thousands of deaths in the United States every year. Longer term, trends in biotechnology may create the potential to edit life itself. Recent examples include reengineering viruses like HIV to attack other viruses, research to change a disease like avian flu (H5N1) and increase transmissibility, dormant diseases coming back to life, and our ability to sequence ancient DNA. At this moment in time, we are less than 10 years away from someone having access to a serious pathogen, without direct access to the original virus. This means diseases such as the plague and smallpox or flu strains or even Ebola may be available for download in the not too distant future.
There is an opportunity now to start a dialogue about the ethics of these changes. Some biologists have already taken a stand against making new editing techniques public in the hope that we spend more time studying the long-term effects of such an approach. The policy community should join in this debate in order to identify ways to strengthen U.S. and global frameworks that can limit the security concerns that the coming proliferation of biotechnology capability may create.