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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

He knew of the biohacker in Germany who used dog saliva on tennis balls to discern which neighbor was allowing a pet to poop on his front lawn, and a breeder who used human sperm to test out gene-editing ideas before introducing them to puppies. There were still more: biohackers trying to cure cancer, create home-brewed insulin, implant chips under their own skin.

You discovered that most biohackers live by the software revolution's concept of the Cathedral and the Bazaar: the notion that, when knowledge and power are concentrated, society sees great losses in efficiency. Their approach is to propel grassroots innovation to tear down the cathedrals and convert them into open-source bazaars.

"DIY-Bio actually started educating the FBI, telling them how people could modify yeast to make opioid precursors. It was 'Breaking Bad' to Brewing Bad," You said. "I knew we were going to need these guys."

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Canine was looking to experiment. He wanted to extract and read DNA from his inside cheek, but his unsteady hand kept bungling the pipetting process at Genspace. That's when the robot idea struck him.

He had no background in molecular biology, but his ties to Occupy Wall Street — he'd twice gone to jail for his protesting — convinced him that DIY-bio was part of a larger movement hedging against a capitalist takeover. It infuriated him that only the most elite labs used automated machines often designed decades ago that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And as a student of artistic engineering, Canine, who had experience with 3D printers, imagined a better way.

 

"I could download a unicorn head and print it out — so why couldn't I download and print this experiment?" he asked.

"Biotechnology is how we heal ourselves. It's the most important technology, yet the least accessible," he added. "I wanted to give people tools to have a new type of power."

Canine enlisted a techie from a DIY-Bio listserv — Chiu Chau, who had already built a first model of Canine's robot idea in his New Jersey garage. The two recruited software gurus to design a robot interface that let lab technicians choose various ingredients and commands. Once materials were loaded, tiny syringes called micropipettes plunged into wells in unison and transported fluids thousands of times. Canine's company, Opentrons, was born.

Community biologists could now quicken and expand their lab work and share protocols around the world. That, to Canine, was power. And to biohackers everywhere, it was a perfect bazaar.

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