"Biohackers approach science as a hacker approaches computers, looking at problems and experiments in ways that might elude conventional scientists," explains a guy in a blue jumper named Andrew Gray. He's the man behind the aptly named Melbourne biohacking group, Melbourne BIOhack, and president of Bioquisitive, a community lab and workspace.
Biohacking started in the US, but now there are groups in places as diverse as Germany and Indonesia. While these places are all working on different pursuits, the idea is the same: to get science out of universities and into the hands of anybody interested. That, in turn, fosters innovation and scientific advancement.
Melbourne's only biohacking group is based in a Brunswick warehouse. When I walk in, a group of five are injecting slices of decellularized bacon with dye, and making colorful prints on pieces of paper. The bacon has been put through a process to strip out its cells, leaving only the extracellular matrix, which is the scaffolding on which cells form. The end product looks like a cross-section of jellyfish.
Born in California but with family in Tasmania, Andrew joined the US Army and was deployed to Afghanistan where he studied biology through an online course. "I'd never studied biology before," he tells me. "It blew my mind." What he didn't expect however, was how it would affect the value he placed on life. "Learning how complicated and similar we all are made me not want to be in the military anymore. I wanted to get the hell out."
After being discharged from the army he arrived in Melbourne to find the city was without biohackers. Australia's only group was in Sydney, called Biofoundry. So with help from the Sydney hackers, Andrew assembled a makeshift laboratory from various bits of second-hand equipment, including two PCR machines—used to amplify DNA—which he calls Angel and Rudy. "There's one good thing about donated equipment," he says, grinning. "It comes with a little bit of character."
With this lab, the group is planning to map the microcosm of bacteria in Melbourne's public transport system. This, they hope, will reveal what bacteria is out there, and allow them to observe how it moves through the network. It will also look at the city's public transport system as a living being—a system through which people and bacteria move.
The concept is based on a similar project completed at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York last year, which found bubonic plague and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the subway. The big difference between the two studies will be how they're presented. While New York's was somewhat dry, Andrew insists his version will be more akin to an art display.
The project is also being carried out with the Sydney biohackers, who will make a similar map of Sydney's transport system. But before the Melbourne team can begin, their warehouse needs to be air-tight to withhold experimental organisms.
In the meantime, the biohackers are working on short turn-around projects. As I left, they'd moved from painting with translucent bacon, to tearing apart webcams, and drilling holes in bits of plastic. Apparently they were about to make miniature microscopes to look at mold someone had been growing at home.
"When you think of a hacker, you think of someone doing malicious stuff, but hackers are actually the people doing the innovating," Andrew tells me. As I look around his lab, I have to agree. It's very innovative.
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