When some people hear the word “hacker,” they think of the garage hobbyists who laid the foundation for the personal computer industry. Others envision a shadowy world in which programmers build computer viruses or break into websites. Then, there is a third category of hacker, motivated not by evil, but by the desire to spark larger conversations about how technology and information are used—perhaps best represented by Aaron Swartz, who tragically committed suicide last weekend. These sometimes conflicting visions of innovation and evil are both part of the mythology of the computer hacker, which has for years been creeping into a very different field: biology.
As equipment has gotten cheaper and techniques have become more accessible, biology has been embraced by a growing number of amateurs. To many, that seems like an extraordinary opportunity: Bringing biology, and specifically the ability to analyze and manipulate DNA, out of the specialized and intimidating confines of the laboratory could drive science education forward and bring in a surge of creative ideas from people with other expertise and interests.
The flipside is that amateurs could—accidentally or purposefully—do science that could harm others, such as release a specially engineered pathogen into the environment or, more likely, pour the wrong substance down the drain.
Now, in an effort to make sure the DNA hackers know what they’re doing, Boston-based DIYbio.org (short for Do-it-Yourself Biology) and the Synthetic Biology project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a non-partisan research organization, have created a new resource: “Ask a Biosafety Expert.”
The website, manned by three experienced professionals, will post answers to questions submitted by users about how to do science safely.
“It’s the regular, old-fashioned biosafety issues that we need to address,” said Jason Bobe, a cofounder of DIYbio.org, a nonprofit that aims to support and foster the community of amateur biologists. He’s less concerned that people are mistakenly working with a pathogenic organism in their basement and sees the websites’ readers as more likely to be “someone who has a home workshop and is concerned about the safety of having a nitrogen tank or the approriate ventilation.”
An amateur biologist can work in a basement laboratory, a closet in her apartment, or a communal laboratory where people buy memberships, similar to a gym. (Bobe said that while the Boston-area DIYbio communal workspace isn’t active currently, there is interest in restarting it.) In those informal contexts, citizen scientists may lack the kind of expertise that institutions have, such as biosafety officers who advise scientists starting new experiments on whether research needs to be done in a special hood or what protective gear they need to wear.
Ted Myatt, one of the three experts who will field questions from amateurs, is director of research compliance at the University of Rhode Island. He said that, based on his own experience with amateur biologists, the idea that people will intentionally do something to harm others has been overhyped.
“The types of experiments I’ve heard and seen these groups trying to do, I don’t particularly have any concerns,” Myatt said. What’s perhaps of greatest concern, he said, is chemical safety, which mostly poses a risk to an individual, not society, because amateurs may not be aware of the risks if they spill a chemical on their skin, for example. They may not understand how to store a chemical.
Many of the questions are likely to be about what to do after the experiment is over. Can you throw it away in the trash? Pour it down the drain? Do you bleach it first? Do you need to send it out to a specific company?
The three-person team will decide the answers to the questions posed by consensus and share them online, Myatt said.
“In general, biosafety professionals understand, I think, more than the general public that the risks presented by groups that are doing this sort of thing are relatively low,” Myatt said. “Having a service like this is really great, and a lot of these groups have really taken safety to heart.”
“On the malicious side,” Myatt added, “I would say that there are a lot of different ways bad people can do bad things, so this seems like an awfully difficult way to do something bad.”