Technology

Meet the team of biohackers useing a DIY lab to probe the possibilities of modifying natural biology, and the ethics of doing so. By Gillian Terzis.

Biohackers at the DIY BioFoundry

Meow in the BioFoundry lab.
Credit: SUPPLIED

When Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow was a uni student in 2007, he was enthusiastic about molecular biology but hardly a conscientious student. He was frustrated with theory-based study and observing from a distance. He wanted to generate inquiry through practical means. After he graduated in 2011, he started up BioFoundry, Australia’s first grassroots DIY science lab, in Sydney.

I meet him on a temperate afternoon at BioFoundry headquarters, housed in a 1500-square metre warehouse on a side street in the inner-city suburb of Alexandria. He is charismatic, fast-talking, and prone to gesticulation, and he changed his name to “Meow” by deed poll as a homage to the opening scene in stoner comedy Super Troopers. On the day I meet him he sports a straggly ponytail, baggy jeans and a T-shirt screenprinted with the lab’s insignia, lightly coated in sawdust. He has spent the morning sawing wood to get BioFoundry ready before it opens to the public.

He gives me a tour of the warehouse he shares with a motley crew of industrial designers, artists, fashion designers, a knife maker, a blues-rock band and a guy who runs a lemonade van. The lab is self-funded and makeshift, where benches, equipment and people have been seemingly arranged Tetris-style to fit the confines of a five-metre-by-five-metre nook. Two women are sitting cross-legged on the floor, quietly engrossed in projects of their own. One is making fairy wings. I peer at the machinery, trying to discern its function. “That’s an automated liquid handler,” Meow says, which is a kind of robot that uses a motorised pipette to dispense liquid onto a container for experiments. I gesture at what look like a couple of minibar fridges. “These are our incubators,” he says.

Meow sticks his head in one to gauge its temperature. “This guy’s working?” he asks his lab mates. They confer briefly. Talk wheels around technical specifications, before moving on to what other BioFoundry members are creating for the Powerhouse Museum’s Mini Maker Faire, an inventors’ exhibition on August 15-16. Enthusiasm suffuses the air. “Cool! I’m going to put my mushrooms and cultures in here,” he announces. Meow’s mushrooms are bioluminescent, and he hopes to grow more of them and spark the imagination of passers-by. “Bioluminescence draws people to biology and molecular biology,” Meow tells me later. “They’re wondering what reaction makes this happen and why.” The phenomenon, he explains, is produced by a catalytic enzyme called luciferase (derived from Lucifer, the “bearer of light”), which is present in fireflies, the sea pansy and some species of fungi. The luciferase then oxidises a molecule called luciferin, which produces energy in the form of light. It’s the sort of thing, Meow says, that would be equally at home at Sydney’s Vivid festival or a bush doof.

Meow and his 60-odd team at BioFoundry are biohackers. They apply tenets of the hacker philosophy – open access, collaboration and freedom of information – to questions of biology. In a few months, Meow will meet other biohackers from around the world in Yogyakarta to work on creating a substitute for palm oil, derived from algae.

Biohackers typically hail from a range of scientific and non-scientific fields; BioFoundry counts geneticists, microbiologists, chemists, electrical engineers, lawyers, industrial designers, and IT professionals among its members. When I ask him how such professional diversity influences BioFoundry’s research, Meow defers to the work of cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. “He says the strength of our intelligence comes from the ability to map dissimilar concepts onto each other. You might say, how is DNA like fabric? Or, how is computer programming similar to the way cells transcribe genes? I think those types of conversations don’t often happen inside universities, but in here they’re a daily thing.”

Meow says the biohacking community can be roughly divided into two camps: those who are interested in biology, and those who treat their body as a laboratory, in a similar vein to the quantified self movement. BioFoundry is firmly in the first category, although Meow is fascinated by “grinders”, who are explicitly aligned with the transhumanist movement, the syncretic product of the two schools of thought. Grinders make themselves the subject of scientific inquiry, hoping to elevate the human condition, override the limitations of their physiology, or augment their sensory perception through technology. An array of mild superpowers awaits the aspirational cyborg: people are already implanting magnets into their fingers to feel the push and pull of forcefields. Meow tells me of grinders in London who “squirt shit in their eye to make themselves see in the dark”.

For much of the scientific and programming community, hacking is embraced as a force for optimism, but for members of the public it often presents, unfairly or otherwise, as an existential threat. Maybe it’s because I work in an industry characterised by diminishing horizons – journalism – but I couldn’t help but find biohacking’s portrait of life as a constellation of expanding possibilities striking and seductive.

Meow is considering offering BioFoundry members access to the lab with radio frequency identification, in the form of a chip embedded in the user’s hand. He admits he wasn’t really into grinding at first. “Like, why wouldn’t you just wear a bracelet?” He pauses, takes a quick drag from his vape, before answering his own question. “Because it’s fucking cool,” he says. “It’s good to be an early adopter and say, ‘I’m putting my body on the line and doing something cool and challenging.’ Even though it’s no more impressive than wearing a bracelet, it shows where things might go.”

At the moment, Meow is happy to work on microbes, but his longer-term dream is to develop point-of-care diagnostic testing. “To take the burden off the healthcare system, we could accurately diagnose ourselves at home and move towards civic science instead of citizen science,” he says. In an ideal world, he suggests, individuals wouldn’t just mindlessly agglomerate personal data on apps, they’d understand it, too – though I wonder what a large-scale model of atomised illness and responsibility might mean for healthcare’s status as a public good.

BioFoundry aims to get certified as a PC1 laboratory, which will allow its members to conduct genetic experiments on microbes. The regulations governing a PC1 lab are pretty strict: it is forbidden to work with plants, pollen, animals or human cell lines. The genetically modified microbiological organisms that are created at BioFoundry cannot survive in the real world. At SymbioticA, a PC2 research lab housed within the University of Western Australia, artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr fashioned a “Victimless Leather” jacket from human and mouse cells, giving new meaning to the notion of clothing as a second skin. The mouse-sized object was kept in a glass container, tube-fed nutrients and exhibited at MoMA in 2008 before it was “killed” by a museum curator after expanding uncontrollably and obstructing its own incubation system. This year, US fashion designer and creative director of Modern Meadow Suzanne Lee explained how a kombucha-like substance could be used to grow a vegan leather jacket in a Petri dish.

These experiments aren’t just putting synthetic biology under a literal microscope, but critiquing the discipline and its social and cultural implications. Should nature be modified, and under what conditions? Can ethical concerns about tinkering with biology be assuaged by considerations of scale, purpose or intent? Does our desire for biological control stem from practical necessity or from fear of being outcompeted? Perhaps it’s at the nexus of artistic and scientific practice where we can begin to navigate the unwieldy terrain between advances in technology and the evolution of our moralism.

For Andrew Gray, founder of another biohacking outfit, BioQuisitive Inc based in Melbourne, and former member of the US military, such an awakening led him out of Afghanistan and into biology. He found himself transfixed by the beauty of fractals; how cells viewed through a microscope evoked boyhood dreams of celestial galaxies. “Suddenly I’m like, ‘I want to get the hell out of here.’ I have a huge appreciation for life now, and how different everything is but how similar we are at the same time,” he says. For him, empathy is an epistemic necessity. Come to think of it, that’s probably a decent yardstick for ethical behaviour. Science’s latent promise lies not in affirming one’s convictions, but revealing our conscience.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Gene hack men (and women)". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.