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DIY Biohackers aim to democratize science – but what are the risks?




A photo still of a petri dish.
A photo still of a petri dish.

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Search “biohacker” into YouTube and you’ll find women and men injecting themselves with homemade vaccinations, steroids and even (unsuccessfully) superhuman powers.

Though these “garage biohackers” are certainly shocking, they are only a small fraction of a much larger scientific and social movement called “DIY biohacking.” With the decrease in price for biogenetic equipment came an increase in access, and DIY biohacking arose as a result of this phenomena. Community labs were formed, which allowed both amateurs and professionals a space to experiment with biological projects and research at a relatively low cost.

But what kinds of safety and ethical regulations exist for labs such as this? And what are the regulations on biological engineering research in general? In January of this year, a team at the University of Alberta sparked controversy after recreating a horsepox virus – a close relative of smallpox – and then publishing their methodology. Concerns were made over the paper’s publication, arguing that it created an avenue for irresponsible replication.

So where does innovation end and risk begin? Guest host Libby Denkmann discusses the multi-layered issue with experts Ellen Jorgensen and Gregory Koblentz.

With guest host Libby Denkmann.

Guests:

Ellen Jorgensen, molecular biologist and co-founder of Biotech Without Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing public access to biotechnology

Greg Koblentz, associate professor who teaches and researches on international security at George Mason University in Virginia; he is also the director of the school’s Biodefense graduate program