Defining open: Biohack the Planet

BioHTP explored the projects the biohacking community is tackling, how the community is organized, and where it's going.

By Wakanene Sebastian Kamau
January 11, 2017
Earth. Earth. (source: Pixabay)

How do we define an open community and what would we want from one? The inaugural BioHack the Planet conference took place this September in Oakland, California. Hosted in Omni Commons, the volunteer collective home to the DIYbio hub Counter Culture Labs, the conference embodied the spirit of the community it sought to bring together. BioHack the Planet (BioHTP) was developed to be “run by BioHackers, designed for BioHackers, with talks solicited from BioHackers.” Its two organizers, Karen Ingram and Josiah Zayner, are both veterans of the do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, or biohacking community, in their own right. Ingram is a coauthor of the BioBuilder curriculum for teaching synthetic biology. Zayner’s DIY supply store, ODIN, has outfitted many budding scientists with everything from pipette tips and bulk cell media to at-home CRISPR kits. So what happens when biohackers organize themselves to discuss their work? Part symposium, part workshop, and part exhibition, BioHTP explored the projects the biohacking community is tackling, how the community is organized, and where it’s going.

While BioHTP isn’t the first time the biohacking community has been brought together, it may be the first time it’s done so by its own at this scale. Soon after the launch of in 2008, the FBI co-sponsored the “Building Bridges Around Building Genomes” conference in collaboration with the American Association For The Advancement Of Science (AAAS), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of State to encourage communication between policymakers and academics as well as synthetic biologists working in industry and in community labs. Later, in 2012, the FBI flew in biohackers from around the world to a DIYbio conference to develop their relations with the community. Since then, DIY biologists have organized largely on a continental basis, as in the formation of a European network of do-it-yourself biology, on the web, as in the Hackteria platform, or complementary to larger hobbyist conferences, such in the Nation of Makers Initiative or South by Southwest.

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It was after South by Southwest, the annual music, film, and interactive media festival in Austin, Texas, where, in 2014, Ingram and Zayner took part in an impromptu DIY biology panel that they began to envision what a biohacking conference would look like.

“At the moment there is a big hole when it comes to connecting these people [biohackers] who live all across the world,” says Zayner. “Most of us are loosely connected on Facebook and Twitter but still many people don’t know each other or what everyone is working on.” Without these linkages, the community suffers. As Zayner went on to say, “In science, it is extremely important to give and receive feedback on our research, be inspired by each other’s work, and collaborate.”

Collaborations at Scale

A recurring theme throughout the conference was a call to collaborate. Ranging from the pharmacological, with discussions on the Open Insulin and Open Estrogen projects led by Anthony Di Franco and Mary Tsang, respectively, to the ecological, with presentation of citizen science efforts like the Oxalis Genome Project by Sebastian Cocioba and Citizen Salmon project by Michal Galdzicki, the DIYbio community has a healthy sense of teamwork.

Part of the motivation behind the DIYbio community push toward collaborative projects is to use them as teaching tools. Take, for example, the Oxalis Genome Project, an ambitious effort to develop the common shamrock-looking plant into a model organism. As Cocioba says, “We want to give anyone and everyone a chance at contributing to the body of knowledge about this plant as an introduction to DNA sequencing, bioinformatics, ecology, etc.” By creating public and open repositories for the genomic markers and protocols, Cocibioa hopes to encourage broad participation in the project.

Other projects were more explicitly directed at developing biological tools for scientists. Kate Adamala presented work on building a synthetic cell from scratch to determine the requirements for life in a manner similar to breadboards in the study of electronics, while Keoni Gandall’s efforts to develop a modular genome from the bacterium Mesoplasma florum. Both showcased efforts to develop platforms for prototyping biology. In Gandall’s case, he wants to make his work on the bacterium “open, so anyone can use it.”

A number of presenters used the conference as an opportunity to crowdsource suggestions to overcome hurdles. If two heads are better than one, then perhaps a crowd is better than two? This was certainly the case for Citizen Salmon, a DNA barcoding effort to trace store-bought salmon to the lakes and streams it comes from. “We have a particularly big challenge,” says project lead Galdzicki. “Most of the organisms people work with today already have genomes sequenced. There is no [public] genome available for the Pacific salmon.” The following Q&A session provided a spirited discussion of novel genome sequencing methods and enlivened the group’s efforts.

Moreover, as Cory Tobin, from The L4B, showed with his presentation on Streptomyces thermoautotrophicus, a bacteria purported to be able convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia in the presence of oxygen, collaborations are can help push a project to completion. By recording his early work, as he would in a lab notebook, on a public wiki page, he was able to catch the eye of a number of academic researchers. Together, they formed a multi-institution consortium to study the bacterium. Support from the consortium leveraged the resources to sequence and align S.thermoautotrophicus’ genome, which ultimately led them to conclude that the bacterium does not fix nitrogen, contrary to what earlier studies had reported. Slightly dismayed in their final result but confident in their work, Tobin urged researchers to publish their results. “Someone else probably already tried this, he said, “and it didn’t work.” A message he and his collaborators took to heart by publishing their negative results in the open access scientific journal Scientific Reports.

Transdisciplinary Cooperation

Not only have collaborations flourished within the traditional science community as the open science movement has grown, but, as BioHTP shows, open collaboration has given nontraditional and traditional scientists the ability to biohack.

Representing the group of designers and landscape architects behind the collective BkBioReactor, biologist Elizabeth Hénaff presented on an investigation of the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site in Brooklyn. As an artist-in-residence at the School of Visual Arts Visual Future Lab, Hénaff designed a series of bioreactors, inspired by the architecture of sponges, to host bacteria that would promote a remediation plan based on microbes. Reflecting on her residency and the project, Hénaff came to the realization that “[Design] is such a rich field that has been studying how to communicate things. That is something that, as scientists, we do see the need of doing, or don’t do as well.” As the project continues to evolve, Hénaff proposed expanding the project to include other Superfund sites. “For better or for worse, I think everybody probably has a Superfund site in their backyard,” she says. “What I would like to see is if we could have a collective effort to characterize the the microbiome of all these different superfund sites and see if we can come up with a solution together.” By sharing the results of culture experiments, process and design files, and adopting a distributed sequencing effort, similar to the Oxalis Genome Project, the project develops an open network of DIY spaces studying the environmental metagenomics of Superfund sites.

Beer brewer Nick Moench and dog breeder David Ishee showed how the availability and accessibility of biology protocols can lead nontraditional scientists to new DIYbio applications. “Craft beer has a problem,” Moench says. “We all use the same microbes to make the same beers from the same labs and it’s boring.” Expanding the biodiversity of microbes used by his company, Inoculum Ale Works, to create its unique sour beers drives his passion. For Moench, soliciting microbes from the biohacking community is a way to develop both his beer and the network of people changing the course of the beer brewing industry. As he says, half tongue-in-cheek, “If you can’t be the best, at least be the coolest.”

For Ishee of Midgard Mastiffs, the goal is to use techniques from genetic engineering to breed dogs with fewer genetic diseases. Ishee, who does not have a formal background in biology, saw the unrealized potential for biohacking in this field. “Now, we have the technology to solve it, but big institutions have no interest in it,” he says. “There’s no profit motive. Dog breeders would do it, but we don’t have the technology or the know-how. But that’s exactly what I am trying to do: bridge the gap between dog breeder and genetic engineer.” While his first attempt at using sperm-mediated gene transfer, a technique that uses sperm to transfer exogenous genetic information during fertilization, to confer green fluorescence to dogs was unsuccessful, he remains optimistic and committed to learning and experimenting. “I’ll try again, with a few changes, to increase the chances of fertilization.”

Responsible Openness

With good reason, many of the projects at BioHTP emphasized and encouraged collaboration. As we’ve seen, collaboration can be insightful, instructive, and facilitative, bringing in energy or inspiring confidence in early-stage projects. Perhaps now, when collaboration has become a cultural standard and goes seemingly hand in hand with the term “open,” we can begin to have a dialogue on what kinds of collaboration should be encouraged and what responsibilities are taken on by open networks. From the conference, four speakers were particularly interested in discussing the structure of the biohacking community: David Kong, Thomas Landrain, Megan Palmer, and Drew Endy.

David Kong, cofounder of the international How to Grow (Almost) Anything course on synthetic biology, touched on the requirements for developing a “Creative Ecosystem of Making.” He cited a finding from a study by Jeppesen and Lakhani in the journal Organizational Science that showed that participants who were in the “outer circle” of the scientific establishment” were able to perform with greater success than those from within the establishment. These outliers could capitalize on creativity to drive innovation. To foster this creativity, Kong highlighted a need to “make ‘biological making’ radically diverse.” In order to do so, his talk focused on the tools, the spaces, and the communities that make up an ecosystem of creative making. From his background in microfluidics, a study of the small-scale manipulation of fluids which has wide application in synthetic biology, Kong has been part of a team that is developing an open, online repository for the designs of printable microfluidic devices. Additionally, Kong cofounded the cross-cultural community center, East Meets West, that hosted the How to Grow (Almost) Anything course in 2015. The center also serves as a bookstore, art gallery, and performance venue for the greater Cambridge community.

In thinking the concept of community on a larger scale, Thomas Landrain used the metaphor of dark matter to explain why he was driven to help create the French biohackerspace La Paillasse in 2011:

Dark matter and dark energy comprises 95% of the universe, and it’s stuff you can’t interact with. […] As a researcher, at some point I realized that we were such a small minority that actually had the monopoly of doing science somehow. Why couldn’t we imagine ways to bring in more people? People outside academia are trying new ways of producing science, but that couldn’t happen within traditional matter, academia, so we had to try to interact with that dark matter.

It was in this spirit that, in 2015, La Paillasse hosted a six-month, online, open cancer epidemiology initiative with the pharmaceutical giant Roche. The result, Epidemium, included over 300 participants from across Paris and yielded over 3,600 contributions to their public wiki. Notably, the initiative cut across disciplines. Of the participants, one-third were students, and two-thirds were professionals, many of whom worked outside of health industry. With an eye to collaboration on an even larger scale, Landrain is now focused on understanding the social science behind how open science groups collaborate through the think tank CommonGround.

In parallel, Megan Palmer’s presentation, “BioHacking Governance” opened a dialogue for discussing the ethos of “doing it yourself” within the biohacking community and showcased ways that the biohacking community has regulated itself. As Palmer noted, within the biohacking community, there is often a lack of specificity about its values and what systems it supports. For example, she says, “We talk about democratizing technologies, but what does that mean? Does that mean just access to tools, or does that mean equity on how those tools are used and the results of it?” For Palmer, questions like these do the work of teasing out the underlying sentiments conveyed by the popular contrarian narrative within the biohacking community. Nonetheless, methodologies in this vein are not without their critics. As an attendee noted during the Q&A, “When you have a community that has community standards and norms and does communicate, you do in fact create [a] system, create ways of collaboration, and create rules as far as safety.” A valid claim, which, on a closer look, is less at odds with the message of the presentation than it appears. By beginning to shift away from mentalities of “doing it yourself” to new narratives of “doing it together” we can finally ask, to quote Palmer, “What are the principles of systems we want to encode?”

Outlining these principles is hard work. It requires negotiating logistics and interests across a wide range of interested parties. With due consideration, the entirety of the last day of the three-day conference was devoted to a series of roundtable style community discussions on topics ranging from biosafety and funding to collaborations and plans for future conferences. Participation in these conversations is crucially important and, sadly, was not as strong as it ought to have been, given the turnout for the rest of the conference. Geographies notwithstanding, only one person joined in online. By distributing power and responsibility across our network through conversations like these, we empower the entire biohacking community. By cultivating a culture of participation at community discussions, we can identify what our community’s cultures and norms are and do the work of encoding a system of principles that works for us. “The goal of biohacking is to make science accessible,” Zayner says. “Most of us take that seriously and go out of our way to write protocols or share materials, but we need to do much more than that. We also need to go out of our way to make science available by welcoming those different from us through encouragement and direct outreach.” Zayner and Ingram say that to foster an inclusive environment, the movement must encourage representation across different aspects of identity: gender, ethnicity, race, education level, age, expertise, desired outcomes for the technology, income, ability, and so on. Active participation in community-oriented dialogue is a civic responsibility to ourselves, and we need to do better.

Conceptualizing what citizenship might mean in the context of biohacking was the focus of the keynote presentation by synthetic biology pioneer Drew Endy. He used an anecdote about his attempt, and subsequent failure, to produce a batch of the homegrown opiates that raised public concerns over DIY biology to introduce the following quote from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams: “A government adapted […] for the Man of these states. Here every one may have land to labor for himself if he chuses [sic]; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence [.]”

For Endy, this gets to to why biohacking is important: it is “a path by which people can secure a capacity for making things, biological and otherwise.”

To solidify this path, Endy has been active in developing tools that broaden access and increase the interconnectedness of biological labs.The newest tool, the Bionet, is a project to coordinate the physical transfer of materials across people doing biology. This includes setting up material nodes at both academic and community labs as well as providing freely available schematics for DIY material scanners and low-cost commercial alternatives. The Bionet, in conjunction with the Open Materials Transfer Agreement (OpenMTA), facilities easier redistribution of biological materials. Plans for the Bionet include provisions for crowdsourced participation in deciding what should be made freely available across the system and possibly using geographic need to distribute materials where they are needed most.

Broadly, these tools are allowing for a new cultural tradition within synthetic biology. As Endy emphasizes, our intense focus on application and danger have stunted the growth of the culture surrounding biotechnology. As the barriers around technology for biology are lowered, we as a biohacking community can take an active role in positing toward a future of increased access, with an aim for broader representation.

To echo Endy’s parting words, “We can connect with play and design and art by hacking and creating and distributing and enabling people to be citizens by giving the means of production around biohacking.” By broadening representation, we can empower citizens to begin to ask what would be meaningful to them in the context of who they are and where they are. BioHack The Planet was a display of what has brought meaning to those who have had the ability to create. As the tools and cultures surrounding openness develop, we have a responsibility to shape how it matures. I hope we take that responsibility seriously.


Other incredible presenters at BioHTP whose work was not included here: Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Eri Gentry, Structure Films, David Brown, and Kate McLean and Mario Furloni.

Post topics: Bio