Biohackers between spab and commerce

Biohacker between spab and commerce

Picture: B. Schroder

In the labyrinth of hopping – wandering through a biotope – part 1

The growing number of biohacks that can be found on the Internet is primarily a consequence of the progressive development of a technology whose increasing availability also creates new opportunities for activists. While observers compare the current state of the scene in terms of available electronics and equipment to that of professional laboratories in the mid-1990s, an assessment of the potential performance of molecular biology work is less directly possible.

The translation of available, high-quality theoretical information into practical recipes that work in non-professional laboratories is considered particularly difficult. Different legal situations also cause geographical peculiarities in the development of project focuses, which become clear, for example, in the comparison between the scenes of the USA and Europe.

Equipment for the home lab

Biohack projects are diverse and not limited to genome editing. At the interface with the maker scene, home lab tools have been emerging for several years that were considered expensive to prohibitively expensive years ago, yet are indispensable for lab work.

Among the well-known players in this field are GaudiLabs, an active part of the open source biology art network hackteria.org. At the nexus of culture and technology, inexpensive lab equipment is emerging, such as a gel electrophoresis setup for separating molecules of varying coarseness, an incubator for cultivating bacteria, a digi-cam microscope, devices for working with microfluids, and spectrophotometers that can quantify microvolume samples. In hack sessions, so-called "hack sprints", interested people work together on selected topics, like hacking algae or a DIY dipole trap. The results are openly documented. The projects focus on spab and shared learning.

As the biohacking scene becomes more cohesive, ideas are increasingly being evaluated for their suitability for commercial exploitation. Start-up companies emerge from the hackerspace, often trying to obtain seed funding through crowdfunding. The focus of this development is in the USA, and the protagonists see themselves in the tradition of the pioneers of the computer industry in the early 1980s. The open source idea, which is alive among biohackers, ensures a free circulation of ideas and information.