Biohackers, unmasked

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On a cold Wednesday evening in January, we showed up at Hoxton station and ventured out to look for ‘unit 24’ in the complex of industrial buildings across the road. The sounds of night-time in East London were all around us. When we found our destination, ‘Cremer Business Centre’, it looked like a fairly run-down sort of place. A security guard passed by and we asked him which way to unit 24. “Hackspace?” he asked. We nodded, and he pointed us to a door with peeling paint marked ‘fire escape’. “Take the stairs to level two,” he said.

Up the stairs, we emerged onto an unenclosed walkway with a series of green double doors set along it at intervals. Glancing over the handrail to our right, we saw a yard with an assortment of rubbish and bits of rotting machinery lying abandoned in it. Three doors along, we found the place; the entrance marked with a bright red home-made door bell. It spoke something in electronic tones to us when we pressed it, but almost immediately a bearded man in a slayer hoodie opened the door and warmly invited us in.

We had arrived at London Hackspace, a place that seems to have captured something of the anti-capitalist zeitgeist of the twenty-tens. The space houses a community of ‘hackers’, who work on technological projects in their spare time. It started out with computers, but the do-it-yourself synthetic biology section – the ‘biohackers’ – have recently been growing in popularity. The popularity of events like the annual iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition also show how DIY synthetic biology is increasingly fashionable. The competition to design a useful machine using synthetic biology attracted165 teams in 2011, including some DIY biologists. So a small but increasing section of the public like doing synthetic biology in their spare time. But who are they, and what was it that attracted them to this unrefined lock-up in Hoxton? We were here to find out.

When we said that, yes, we were here for the biohackers meeting, Slayer Hoodie pointed us to a back office where we joined the rest of the meeting. In total there were about eleven other new recruits sitting in the room (see profiles: Jacqueline and Louise), and only three fully enrolled biohackers. All were very friendly and we were soon invited on a tour of the building. Most of the space was given over to the community’s other hacking activities: to computing and engineering projects. Members pay a subscription fee that varies depending on what sorts of activities they want to do. The biohackers have just one small, windowless room for a laboratory. It had enough room for three people to stand in, shoulder to shoulder, and it was lit with an artificially bright white light to aid visibility. “It used to be a toilet when we first got the site,” explained Will, one of the few regulars. “But that’s a bonus really, because it’s got a sink. That is something we need.”

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Photo credit: Raphael Kim.

Space is not the only thing that the biohackers lack. They also have few instruments. Their centrifuge was bought for £100 with pooled money. Other bits and pieces, like their electrophoresis kit, were donated, or brought along by one of the members who is an academic biologist at a London university.

They also have a limited supply of reagents; their biggest expense – except perhaps for sterile pipette tips. They use an enzyme called Taq to run polymerase chain reaction (PCR) protocols that replicate DNA, but they can’t afford to run such things too often. The hackers spent quite a while debating whether to run a demo PCR for us newbies, since it would mean completely using up their remaining supplies of Taq.

Richard, an old-hand in the group (see profile), told us about his vision for the future. At the moment the hackers are still teaching themselves the basics, he said: “It’s a matter of personal interest for us”. But he hopes one day they will be able to do some full-on synthetic biology. “I would like for us to be self-sustaining,” he said. “To be able to bio-synthesise all our own reagents, so we don’t have to spend money buying them from chemical companies.”

Once we had seen the basics we began to feel a bit redundant. We had to rotate out of the tiny lab so all the potential new members could take turns observing. The members spoke longingly of the Hackspace’s plans to buy another property nearby, about twice the size of the current one, where the biohackers hope they can glean a little more bench space.

For the time being the biohackers are limited in space and funds, but with new members and a new building on the horizon, that could soon change. It is our fellow new recruits who will shape this future. Who knows what they might be capable of soon.

The biohackers, profiled

 

Richard – Regular Biohacker Richard has the most molecular biology experience of the group, plus a vision for the future of the Biohackers. Spearheading the plans to upgrade to a larger lab, he also hopes to make the lab self sufficient by developing bacteria to bio-synthesise some of the reagents they need.

Will – Regular member of 10 months. Before that Will had not done any science since school. Since then he has learnt the principles of molecular biology and how to run a PCR. Small steps, perhaps, by Imperial standards, but pretty impressive for someone whose last experience of science was at GCSE level.

Raphael – Studied Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, a course that takes technology (whether it be biotechnology, computing, or electronics) and uses innovative design to communicate its implications for our society. During his course Raphael set up an impromptu lab in his studio and used whatever equipment was to hand to culture bacteria from the studio floor, in a project he called ‘Tangible’. He is now a regular member of biohackers looking to develop his next project.

Jacqueline – An art student from London College of Communication. A newbie at Biohackers, she wants to use the skills of the members to help her develop a piece of ‘bio-art’. When we met, she was keen on the idea of growing patterns of bacteria on giant pieces on agar. The work would slowly decay away as the bacteria colonies grow.

Louise – A recent MSc graduate currently volunteering in a lab in London. She was attracted to the idea of coming up with her own research ideas and working on anything she liked. Institutional stresses can often stifle such “blue sky” research, in her experience.

Profiles written by Keeren Flora.

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