The Worry of Biohacking: Closet Frankensteins or Kafkaesque Government?

By Carl Zimmer | May 12, 2009 1:15 pm

There’s a piece in the Wall Street Journal today about biohacking: people experimenting with genetically engineered microbes and viruses at home. It tries to inject anxiety into your brain right from the start, with a headline,  “In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover Their Inner Frankenstein–Using Mail-Order DNA and Iguana Heaters, Hobbyists Brew New Life Forms; Is It Risky?”

I was surprised, however, to discover that the reporter does not mention the one time that somebody actually got arrested and charged with biohacking. At last year’s World Science Festival, I moderated a panel with the artist Steven Kurtz, who had just finished navigating a Kafkaesque experience with the FBI for having a PCR machine and some harmless soil bacteria in his house. While we certainly need protection against bioterrorism and risky experiments, we definitely do not need the sort of ignorance of basic biology that was on display in the Kurtz affair.

Eyebeam, the New York gallery that hosted the panel, later posted the talk in several parts on YouTube. I’ve embedded them below. Kurtz has a sad and surreal story to tell.


Comments (4)

  1. Creating something seriously dangerous using the sort of biohacking that is currently being carried out is rather unfeasable. You need access to seriously dangerous genes and the technical expertise to manipulate them in ways that are completely beyond the ability of your average hobbyist. The sort of (usually) viral constructs that ARE a serious threat require tissue culture facilities rather than the simple E.Coli shakers. The cost involved in getting together this equipment (and associated CO2 supplies, sterile hood, enzymes, etc) would be prohibitive for most hobbyists currently playing around with E.coli – and thats without even getting into the question of the skills necessary to attempt it.
    HOWEVER, in my personal experience working in cancer research I know of numerous examples of potentially highly dangerous constructs in use in labs throughout the research community. The old adage ‘publish or perish’ is a very real career threat for todays post docs. For every 7 of whom manage to get a tenured position there are 93 who fail. The difference between success and failure is often down to getting that top journal publication and if cutting a few corners gets you that publication then so be it.

  2. There is an obvious potential for abuse, which must be addressed. Biohacking could easily lead to deadly pandemics, biological mutation and destruction of the environment.

    A popular biohacking website which offers a free biohacking instructional kit, makes their mission loud and clear:


Though the information to construct novel, deadly bacteria does not exist in this package (nor will it ever), the pieces are already out there on the internet and they will only become increasingly more consolidated. It is a real threat now and ignoring these threats is not the solution. Indeed, the broader purpose of this project is in fact to counter these threats so that we will not be harmed by script kiddies running wild, so that we will not lose lives to bioterrorists or to senescence. By allowing the proliferation of open source synbio projects, like those for artificial tissue engineering organs (hearts, lungs, liver) or those for genome modifications, we are allowing a community of diagnosticians and diagnostics to develop so that we may proceed to collect as much information as possible to preserve as much as we can. People are dying, every moment, at an increasingly faster rate– and so will you, less you try. 

    Viewing biology and chemistry as technology, rather than science, is becoming more and more popular. Is “E Coli culturing” the new “phreaking”?


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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