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Biohackers at the gate: The untold story of how DIY experimenters waged war on COVID

Emily Baumgaertner, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In the penthouse, the lab, called Genspace, had a leaky roof and no air conditioning or heat. But it was better than the living room where the microbiologists had met before. Every inch of the lab overflowed with computers, plants and projects. Concerned that such hacker spaces can attract unwanted attention, one of the founders, Daniel Grushkin, announced safety guidelines and reached out to the FBI to dispel any rumors the group was dangerous.

Biohackers — homegrown geneticists who manipulate the code of life — had been mischaracterized for decades. They fell under increasing scrutiny after a string of biological incidents in the spring of 1995: a Japanese cult launched a deadly sarin attack in the Tokyo subway system; the Oklahoma City bomber killed 168 people using little more than corn fertilizer, the explosive Tovex and drag-racing fuel; a neo-Nazi sympathizer, Larry Wayne Harris, stored three vials of a plague-causing bacteria in the glove compartment of his Subaru.

Fears over such attacks and other threats multiplied. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, about a decade before Genspace moved into the bank — a time when Canine was a troublemaking eighth grader reading comic books in the heart of Silicon Valley — law enforcement was responding to anthrax mailings and bracing the nation for a new era of terrorism.

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FBI Special Agent Ed You had a particular interest in biological threats.

"Most weapons of mass destruction require very specific materials and knowledge; they're pretty well-tracked and well-regulated," said You, a former cancer researcher at Amgen. "But biology is the opposite: The tools are naturally available. It's open-source by definition."

 

Just as collaborative community labs proliferated in old bottle-cap factories and cellars, so did the number of Americans plotting deadly attacks with chemicals blended in their bathtubs. To a layperson, sinister concoctions and those meant to do good were indistinguishable.

In 2005, after dozens of FBI agents in hazmat suits had raided the home of a harmless bioartist — confiscating computers and petri dishes of nondangerous specimens — You realized how far behind the agency was at understanding legitimate biothreats. He swapped his lab coat for a badge, joining a field office's terrorism task force and then the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.

His goal was to develop inroads with do-it-yourself biologists, such as the ones who formed Genspace, to encourage innovation and prevent disaster. He became the agency's biohacking insider, courting the amateurs clanking beers at local lab parties and building a Rolodex of contacts. He was hard to miss: bald, animated and often in his ascot cap.

You entered a world of colorful, if often suspicious, pioneers that included the likes of Aaron Traywick, who injected himself with a homemade herpes treatment in front of a live audience. You met Thomas Landrain, a Parisian with thick curls and a beard who'd designed biosensors, or microscopic eyes and ears planted onto bacteria; once engineered, those organisms could alert militaries to unseen dangers in thick woodlands or the Pacific.

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