Sung won Lim may be the only undergraduate on Earth who is trying to start life from scratch in his spare time.
Lim, who is 22 and a physics student at New York University, spends his off hours researching how to construct the simplest possible living creature, starting with nothing but an empty shell. It’s a Herculean endeavor scientists call the Minimal Cell Project. Synthetic biologists have been altering cells using man-made parts for more than a decade, and no one has yet come close to engineering an entire organism. But Lim is devoted.
“Some people go watch movies or something,” he said. “I do minimal cell.”
Lim belongs to a new breed of citizen scientists known as biohackers. Essentially, they are hobbyists. But as the manufacturing of DNA — the instructions for life — gets cheaper, and arranging it inside cells gets easier, biohackers are looking more like engineers. Depending on whom you ask, their work could either help solve the world’s big problems, like disease and pollution, or create serious problems of its own.
“Garage biology as a movement is only just really becoming possible,” said Rob Carlson, who owns a Seattle technology firm called Biodesic. He predicts that biohackers will be innovators of biological technology the same way famous hackers like Thomas Edison and Steve Wozniak inspired breakthroughs at companies like General Electric and Apple. “It might scare people,” he said, “but it’s going to be more useful, more valuable, to the world.”
Biohackers, like any kind of hackers, are tinkerers. But rather than tinker with hardware or software, biohackers tinker with genes. They take fragments of DNA, arrange them in new configurations, and stick them inside living cells. If they’re clever, they might get the cells to do something useful. Conventional scientists, for example, are beginning to engineer cells that ooze medicines. If biohackers are really clever, they might get the cells to do something extraordinary, like develop into termites that digest Coke bottles.
But some observers worry that an immoral or naive biohacker might engineer something dangerous, like smallpox.
“We need to keep the hypothetical class of 16-year-old bad boy DNA hackers from coming into existence,” said Roger Brent, director of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California. “Society won’t accept the prospect of a 16-year-old working with HIV.” Brent proposes requiring biohackers to apply for a license. He thinks ill-intentioned biohackers should face criminal prosecution.
But so far, biohackers haven’t accomplished much more than engineering cells to smell like bananas or detect rotten milk. In fact, biohacking is such a new phenomenon that there may be more names for biohackers than there are people doing real biohacking. They’re variously called gene hackers, wetware hackers, garage biologists, do-it-yourself biologists, citizen biotechnologists, bio-engineers, biohobbyists, and biopunks.
Recently, at a student competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a tall, wide-eyed man was handing out business cards that read: Charlie Schick, Molecularist. A person who creates, modifies, and hacks molecules and then makes them do wondrous things.
Schick, a web producer for Children’s Hospital Boston, is a member of DIYbio, short for “Do-It-Yourself biology,” which is the fastest-growing biohacker organization in the world, with 1,228 subscribers to its Google group. Since DIYbio’s beginnings in April 2008, biohacker groups have sprung up in cities like Seattle, Paris, and Bangalore, India.
Last year, Lim, the NYU student, helped found the New York City chapter of DIYbio. As far as its members know, it’s the only biohacker group in the city. Last summer, it incorporated as a non-profit called GenSpace and received a donation of thousands of dollars worth of used laboratory equipment from a Manhattan biotech company that was going out of business. The donation included an incubator for growing bacteria, a thermal cycler for copying DNA, and a centrifuge for separating out DNA from a solution.
The New York chapter has a Google group with 76 subscribers, but only five members regularly show up at meetings. They first began meeting last February in the Brooklyn kitchen of a 32-year-old writer named Daniel Grushkin. Over Yuengling beers and pizza, they learned to extract DNA from strawberries, did experiments with high school biology kits, and threw around big ideas, such as creating ingestible bacteria that secrete disease-fighting antibodies, or making living Etch A Sketches for kids.
Lately, they’ve been talking about finding their own lab space.
“Anywhere with a sink and a relatively constant temperature,” said Russell Durrett, a 21-year-old biology student at NYU, during a meeting last October.
“What about more real equipment?” asked Lucas Geiger, 28, a financial consultant who was new to the group. He was eyeing a transparent tray the size and shape of a pencil box, wired to nine 9-volt batteries.
“Are you kidding me?” Durrett said. “This gel box is the bomb. These things cost like $200. We built this one ourselves from five-dollar Plexiglass from Chinatown.”
Sometimes, biohackers can find cheap or used equipment on eBay or Craigslist. In August, Mac Cowell, an MIT graduate and founder of the Boston-based DIYbio organization, bought a 30-foot shipping container converted into a lab for $12,500 at an auction.
Some biohackers are figuring out how to make the tools they can’t afford to buy. DIYbio’s website links to instructions for converting a $20 webcam into a digital microscope and for building a measuring tool called a spectrometer using a 100-watt light bulb and a prism.
The real financial hurdle for biohackers is making or buying DNA. But even this is getting cheaper. When scientists first manufactured DNA in laboratories, it cost close to $30 for every chemical base pair on the DNA strand. Today, it costs about 30 cents. But even a few cents quickly add up when you’re dealing with DNA strands dozens or hundreds of molecules long.
Plus, biohacking is hard.
“The chances of doing this in your spare time in a garage, at least this year, is pretty limited,” said Tom Knight, an MIT senior scientist, who estimates that his own lab won’t create anything like the cell Lim envisions for another seven or eight years. If Lim hopes to make real progress soon, he added, “the obvious thing for him to do would be to come work with me.”