There's a place in the Netherlands where non-scientists can dabble in biotech. It's inside the Waag, a 15th-century fortified brick structure that is the oldest non-religious building left in Amsterdam. Inside, biohackers can fabricate new ways to image the brain, develop new microbial dyes for textiles, or simply to learn to pipette before embarking upon a new type of project.
Pieter van Boheeman, a self-described hacker, artist, researcher and teacher, heads up the lab. Van Boheeman and his collaborators at the Waag society—an organization focused on art, science, and technology, which operates the lab—have a grand vision: they want to give citizens throughout Europe access to tools to make their own biological experiments and creations, and to discuss openly the risks and opportunities of these technologies. Van Boheeman discussed his initiative with Motherboard at the Biofabricate conference for synthetic biology and design last week in New York City.
"If you want to make a significant impact on something like sustainability or climate change, you have to be able to create technology and really understand it," van Boheeman said. "Otherwise you're just a spectator. Basically you're illiterate, you're just a user. If you cannot create technology, you are now a second class citizen."
"If you cannot create technology, you are now a second class citizen."
The society has been hosting workshops titled "Do It Together Bio," every few months since April 2012. Engineer-instructors come together with 15 to 50 people, ages 20 to 40, who van Boheeman calls "engaged citizens"—usually artists, designers, or social scientists who already have an interest in solving global problems but often don't have any formal biology training—and learn how to do hands-on projects using inexpensive laboratory materials. The workshops have focused on topics as far-reaching as hormone extraction for DIY enhancement, biotic gaming, and constructing photo bioreactors to grow algae.
Sometimes would-be biohackers come in with a project in mind, and the engineers running the workshops slap them with a reality check. The biohackers come into it with a big idea to make the world better—say, to derive electricity from plants—and the engineers start asking them about specifics, like what kinds of plants or just how much electricity they want get out of it.
"Some get discouraged, others say 'I'm going to try,' and that's where the most beautiful things happen," van Boheeman said. "All of a sudden people are making new materials they never thought of making." Past projects have resulted in pigments isolated from microbes found in a lake in France, unique ways to measure brain waves, and presentations of ethically challenging pieces of bioart. Though creating a commercially viable product isn't the main goal of these workshops, it does sometimes happen.
Van Boheeman has a diverse approach to recruiting these engaged citizens. He goes to festivals and events to find people he calls "agents of change" that might want to participate in workshops. He posts DIY videos online and publishes instructions to help hackers create gadgets at home. Sometimes they find him; other times van Boheeman has to seek them out and recruit them himself.
Van Boheeman and his collaborators see their mission as global, not national. Over the next three years, they will hold 500 workshops in 28 countries from Ireland to Iran, sometimes with university partners, but often in pop-up labs with equipment brought in by the organizers. That's a challenge because, though the European Union has directives for protocols that people working with biotech should follow, they vary by country.
"All of a sudden people are making new materials they never thought of making."
For example, regulations in Ireland allow a biosafety officer and the scientist to be the same person, but in the Netherlands you need two different people to fill those roles, van Boheeman said. The Waag society employs a biosafety officer simply to help them navigate those rules. By the summer of 2017, van Boheeman next intends to create a mobile lab in a van, but he's not sure how that will do with regulators in the Netherlands and beyond.
Ultimately, van Boheeman would like to see the issues facing synthetic biology and engineering discussed on a much larger scale, with meetings in the thousands to rival the Chaos Computer Club, Europe's largest association of computer hackers. At the club's annual meeting in Germany, hackers reflect critically on the state of their field. "That doesn't exist for biology," van Boheeman said. People are still wary of discussing the more ethically fraught elements of biological engineering, such as gene drives and human enhancement. Van Boheeman hopes that people who get a hands-on experience with biology can be more literate when having the difficult conversations.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.