As a teenager, Keoni Gandall already was operating a cutting-edge research laboratory in his bedroom in Huntington Beach, California. While his friends were buying video games, he acquired more than a dozen pieces of equipment — a transilluminator, a centrifuge, two thermocyclers — in pursuit of a hobby that once was the province of PhD’s in institutional labs.
“I just wanted to clone DNA using my automated lab robot and feasibly make full genomes at home,” he said.
Gandall was far from alone. In the past few years, so-called biohackers across the United States have taken gene editing into their own hands. As the equipment becomes cheaper and the expertise in gene-editing techniques, mostly Crispr-Cas9, more widely shared, citizen-scientists are attempting to re-engineer DNA in surprising ways.
Until now, the work has amounted to little more than DIY misfires. A year ago, a biohacker injected himself at a conference with modified DNA that he hoped would make him more muscular. (It did not.)
Earlier this year, at Body Hacking Con in Austin, Texas, a biotech executive injected himself with what he hoped would be a herpes treatment. (Verdict: No.) His company already had livestreamed a man injecting himself with a home-brewed treatment for HIV. (His viral load increased.)
In a recent interview, Gandall, now 18 and a research fellow at Stanford, said he only wants to ensure open access to gene-editing technology, believing future biotech discoveries may come from the least expected minds. But he is quick to acknowledge that the do-it-yourself genetics revolution one day may go catastrophically wrong.
“Even I would tell you, the level of DNA synthesis regulation, it simply isn’t good enough,” Gandall said. “These regulations aren’t going to work when everything is decentralised — when everybody has a DNA synthesiser on their smartphone.”
The most pressing worry is that someone somewhere will use the spreading technology to create a bioweapon.
Already a research team at the University of Alberta has recreated from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox, by stitching together fragments of mail-order DNA in just six months for about $100,000 — without a glance from law enforcement officials.
The team purchased overlapping DNA fragments from a commercial company. Once the researchers glued the full genome together and introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles.
To some experts, the experiment nullified a decades-long debate over whether to destroy the world’s two remaining smallpox remnants — at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and at a research centre in Russia — since it proved that scientists who want to experiment with the virus can now create it themselves.
The study’s publication in the journal PLOS One included an in-depth description of the methods used and — most alarming to Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate programme at George Mason University — a series of new tips and tricks for bypassing roadblocks.
“Sure, we’ve known this could be possible,” Koblentz said. “We also knew North Korea could someday build a thermonuclear weapon, but we’re still horrified when they actually do it.”
Experts urged the journal to cancel publication of the article, one calling it “unwise, unjustified, and dangerous.” Even before publication, a report from a World Health Organisation meeting noted that the endeavour “did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skills, significant funds or significant time.”
But the study’s lead researcher, David Evans, a virologist at the University of Alberta, said he had alerted several Canadian government authorities to his poxvirus venture, and none had raised an objection.
Many experts agree that it would be difficult for amateur biologists of any stripe to design a killer virus on their own. But as more hackers trade computer code for the genetic kind, and as their skills become increasingly sophisticated, health security experts fear that the potential for abuse may be growing.
“To unleash something deadly, that could really happen any day now — today,” said George Church, a researcher at Harvard and a leading synthetic biologist. “The pragmatic people would just engineer drug-resistant anthrax or highly transmissible influenza. Some recipes are online.”
“If they’re willing to inject themselves with hormones to make their muscles bigger, you can imagine they’d be willing to test more powerful things,” Church added. “Anyone who does synthetic biology should be under surveillance, and anyone who does it without a licence should be suspect.”
Authorities in the United States have been hesitant to undertake actions that could squelch innovation or impinge on intellectual property. The laws that cover biotechnology have not been significantly updated in decades, forcing regulators to rely on outdated frameworks to govern new technologies.
The cobbled-together regulatory system, with multiple agencies overseeing various types of research, has left gaps that will only widen as the technologies advance.
Academic researchers undergo strict scrutiny when they seek federal funding for “dual-use research of concern”: experiments that, in theory, could be used for good or ill. But more than half of the nation’s scientific research and development is funded by nongovernmental sources.
In 2013, a quest to create a glowing plant via genetic engineering drew almost half a million dollars through Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website.
“There really isn’t a national governance per se for those who are not federally or government funded,” said William So, a biological countermeasures specialist at the FBI.
Instead, So said, the agency relies on biohackers themselves to sound the alarm regarding suspicious behaviour. “I do believe the FBI is doing their best with what they have,” said Dr Thomas V. Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.
“But if you really want to do this, there isn’t a whole lot stopping you.”
The FBI has befriended many white-hat biohacking labs, among them Genspace in New York City. Behind an inconspicuous steel door on a gritty, graffiti-lined street, biohackers-in-training — musicians, engineers, retirees — routinely gather for crash courses in genetic engineering.
Participants in “Biohacker Boot Camp” learn basic technical skills to use in homegrown genetics projects, like concocting algae that glows.
“The double helix is the most iconic image of the 20th century, perhaps rivalled only by the mushroom cloud,” the boot camp’s leader, Michael Flanagan, said to a recent class.
Genspace’s entryway resembles a college dorm room, complete with sagging couch, microwave, mini-fridge.
But the lab itself is palatial: two stories of white brick walls, industrial kitchen counters marked with dry-erase notes, shelves towering with glassware and reagents.
It’s a significant upgrade for Genspace. Daniel Grushkin, a founder, used to host bacterial experiments in his living room over pizza and beer.
The group later moved into a rental for creatives — roboticists, organic fashion designers, miniature-cupcake makers — and constructed a makeshift lab using old patio screen doors. It was Grushkin who reached out to the FBI.
“People might be calling you because we are nonscientists doing science in a busted-up old building,” he recalled telling bureau agents. “But we aren’t a meth lab, and we aren’t bioterrorists.”
Grushkin has become a trailblazer in biohacking risk management, in part because he recognises that letting neophytes manipulate live organisms is “less like a ‘hackerspace’, more like a pet store.”
He has posted community guidelines, forbidden infectious agents in the lab, and accepted a grant of almost $500,000 to design security practices for some four dozen similar labs across the country.
Most of them report not having heard so much as a greeting from the FBI. At many, the consequence for breaking safety guidelines is simply the loss of membership — leaving the perpetrator to experiment in isolation, but still among thousands of enthusiasts huddled online in Facebook groups, email listservs and Reddit pages.
If nefarious biohackers were to create a biological weapon from scratch — a killer that would bounce from host to host to host, capable of reaching millions of people, unrestrained by time or distance — they would probably begin with some online shopping.
A site called Science Exchange, for example, serves as a Craigslist for DNA, a commercial ecosystem connecting almost anyone with online access and a valid credit card to companies that sell cloned DNA fragments.
Gandall, the Stanford fellow, often buys such fragments — benign ones. But the workarounds for someone with ill intent, he said, might not be hard to figure out.
Biohackers will soon be able to forgo these companies altogether with an all-in-one desktop genome printer: a device much like an inkjet printer that employs the letters AGTC — genetic base pairs — instead of the colour model CMYK.
A similar device already exists for institutional labs, called BioXp 3200, which sells for about $65,000. But at-home biohackers can start with DNA Playground from Amino Labs, an Easy-Bake genetic oven that costs less than an iPad, or The Odin’s CRISPR gene-editing kit for $159.
Tools like these may be threatening in the wrong hands, but they also helped Gandall start a promising career.
At age 11, he picked up a virology textbook at a church book fair. Before he was old enough for a driver’s permit, he was urging his mother to shuttle him to a research job at the University of California, Irvine.
He began dressing exclusively in red polo shirts to avoid the distraction of choosing outfits. He doodled through high school — correcting biology teachers — and was kicked out of a local science fair for what was deemed reckless home-brew genetic engineering.
Gandall barely earned a high-school diploma, he said, and was rebuffed by almost every college he applied to — but later gained a bioengineering position at Stanford University. “Pretty ironic, after they rejected me as a student,” he said.
He moved to East Palo Alto — with 14 red polo shirts — into a house with three nonbiologists, who don’t much notice that DNA is cloned in the corner of his bedroom.
Gandall’s mission at Stanford is to build a body of genetic material for public use. To his fellow biohackers, it’s a noble endeavour.
To biosecurity experts, it’s tossing ammunition into trigger-happy hands.
“There are really only two things that could wipe 30 million people off of the planet: a nuclear weapon, or a biological one,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, an adviser on pandemic influenza preparedness to the World Health Organisation.
“Somehow, the US government fears and prepares for the former, but not remotely for the latter. It baffles me.”