Biohacker Cathal Garvey talked about DIY biotechnology at the annual PICNIC festival in Amsterdam. With the theme of the two-day festival being New Ownership Garvey was right at home.
Academically trained as a geneticist Garvey traded in a career in science for DIY bioengineering. Seeing what hacking had done for computing -putting the ability to create and innovate in the hands of the people- he wanted the same for biotechnology and genetics.
“I am trying to make every level of biotechnology available for anyone in the audience”, Garvey said, “because this is the most fundamental technology of them all. This is the code of life, it is universal to everything because of shared common descent.”
Garvey is part of a larger community of biohackers. Like their computer equivalents they have set up biohackerspaces where people come together to collaborate on projects. They organize conferences around the ethics of bioengineering and they develop open hardware equipment to bring down the cost of putting together a biolab. Garvey made a 3D printable microcentrifuge available replacing the $500 ones used in academic labs.
So how do you create your own genetically modified organism? Garvey quickly runs the audience through the basics:
“In the picture you see classical bacteria. In the middle is a clump of chromosomal DNA that has all the essential stuff for a bacteria. Floating around it you have plasmids. These are optional extra chromosomes that bacteria use all the time. Industrially we use these to carry bits of DNA in.
“You can order plasmids with DNA of your choosing over the internet. And that DNA can come with instructions to make a protein that does something: like making fluorescent bacteria.
“You can download the sequence for the protein from the public database uniprot.org. Then run it through open source software like PySplicer and send it to a company like Epoch or DNA 2.0. It will cost you €300 but than you’ll get your plasmids in the mail and you’ll be able to create your own fluorescent bacteria”.
For more detailed information on how to modify E.coli bacteria look up Garvey’s step-by-step instructions on Github.
Garvey points out that biotechnology is one of the oldest technologies. People have been crossbreeding plants and animals since the dawn of civilization. “Biotech comes with this beautiful ancient code base”, Garvey said. “It is the original open source technology and it is right there to be hacked. And until recently there was a bottom-up approach when it came to sharing that. There was a decentralized peer-to-peer model to share the knowledge that concerns our food, our pets, our medicine. Only for the last 100 years or so have we been working on top-down biotech.”
The problem with biotech mainly being practiced by big corporations and established institutions is ownership. Garvey gives the example of the chemical company DuPont that created a line of genetically modified pest resistant crop. In itself that’s a good thing because it means there is no need to spray pesticides. But farmers aren’t allowed to plant the seeds that grow on the plants because they’re owned by DuPont.
Garvey: “It is even worse than copyright where you can’t copy a file. It is natural for a living thing to replicate itself. They put a law on top of it saying it can’t be a plant, it can’t replicate. It is nonsense.”
Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that twenty percent of everybody’s DNA is patented. Twenty percent of you is owned by someone else.
This top down ownership of the code of life is placing tremendous power in the hands of a few. Garvey: “Being a biohacker means seizing that power back”.