‘Biohackers’, the open laboratories that reset the codes of biotechnology

The ‘biohackers’, despite being confused with necromancers or with the latest fashion series, intend to open the doors of the laboratories. Some places that are seen as black boxes with limited access. But that simple action of share knowledge through biology may be the best strategy for scientific dissemination, at the same time that it has served as a hotbed of restless minds who are now scaling up their ideas in works that try to combine business projection, with a kind of open patent or Creative Commons in a bio version, and those who opt for training to expand the answers to the same question.

knowledge, as established by the movement DIYBio, that is to say ‘Do it Yourself Biology’. But as Álvaro Jansà, one of the first ‘biohackers’ in Spain, admits, “there is a lack of people who project the idea in a business manner and give it an approach that reaches society in a massive way”, given that entrepreneur and ‘biohacker’ they can be the two sides of the same coin. Communities that bring together creative people With good ideas, they have emerged as epicenters of change that in this case promote citizen science and apply the principles of biosecurity and sustainability. The ‘biohacker’ is in the antipodes of the bioterrorist, and the FBI itself has declared that they are not a threat. Promote responsible and controlled actions to fulfill one of his maxims, do no harm.

Gonzalo Saiz, ‘biohacker’ and a doctorate in biology, points out “‘biohacking’ implies the democratization of the processes associated with a biology laboratory.” And he points out that it is based on the search for homemade, innovative and creative solutions, to the limitations of existing technology. The idea emerged in the mid-2000s in the United States, when biomolecular techniques, such as sequencing, became cheaper and more accessible. For this scientist, the most important aspect about ‘biohacking’ is the ability to perform experiments with Affordable material thanks to digital manufacturing, the electronic user revolution and simplified programming. So you can build everything from scratch to lower costs or recycle second-hand equipment to make them cheaper. This is very useful for developing countries or small laboratories that cannot afford very expensive equipment. What a ‘maker’ is to the digital industry, the biohacker is to biology.

From micro to macro

Saiz and eight other colleagues from the Complutense were in the prestigious competition of the MIT called International Championship of Genetic Engineering Machines (iGEM 2018), which drinks from the idea of ​​the ‘biohacker’ and which has investment rounds. The first place went to a Valencian team from the polytechnic university of Valencia called Printeria, and that he had a contraption the size of a shoebox capable of printing on the DNA of a bacterium. The group from the Complutense University of Madrid obtained the second position, and later two of the members of the group would be responsible for opening the Openlab Madrid, framed in the practical dissemination of science for the population, through simple experiments and workshops for all ages.

The final idea of ​​the project was that people could follow the movement of molecules in the environment in real time, from their own mobile device. You could see the number of pollen molecules in an area before taking a walk, an ideal possibility to allergy sufferers, or in case of a virus epidemic, detect the amount of molecules in the air by zones. For this, the idea was to use aptamers, which are single-stranded DNA molecules. They work in a similar way to antibodies, but they have two main advantages: They are very cheap and much more stable. In short, a device for detecting an allergen, but which could also be adaptable to other types of biological organisms, as defined by the ‘biohacker’ Rodrigo Hernandez, who currently works in the company Multiverse Computing. «What we wanted was to bring the laboratory to a microchip, with the idea of an internet of bio-things. At the time, we were rare, but seen today with the perspective of the coronavirus would have been of great interest.

Fran Quero and Rodrigo Hernández in the offices of Multiverse Computing
Fran Quero and Rodrigo Hernández in the offices of Multiverse Computing

The evolution of a biohacking project can be that of a startup and a company. Hernández, a quantum computing engineer and student at the University of Oxford, and Francisco I want, CRI researcher and student at the University of Paris, are working on lower the cost of Covid diagnostic tests for developing countries.

The Spanish startup Multiverse Computing was formed from a working group of a non-profit association. The idea of ​​the project is to bring quantum computing to protein engineering. According to Rodrigo Hernández, this process is very complex and classical computing cannot do it, but quantum computing can, creating a diagnosis that would tell us whether or not we have Covid. “This is starting to accelerate, the people who were in a garage are the ones behind these types of projects”, Hernández apostille. Other ‘biohacking’ initiatives in the United States have managed to lower the costs of insulin or epinephrine, from $ 300 to just $ 30.

Divergent idea

The same collaborative spirit moved Nuria Count, Researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (UPF-CSIC) and founder of the first group of biohackers in Spain, DIYBio BCN. And he points out that there are other projects promoted by multidisciplinary profiles (artists, architects, mechanics) learning synthetic biology. But Conde also clarifies that it is necessary not to confuse the idea of ​​’biohacker’ with that of the grinder, in which people graft cybernetic devices to improve their bodies.

Examples in the Spanish geography of biohacking ‘are the cases of Hangar.org (also in Barcelona), there is a biohacking Space in Granada (Guadalix de la Sierra), Biook (a project led by Ricardo Mutuberria in Bilbao) and Ethiopia (Saragossa). These and other communities are united in an association of ‘biohackers’ in Spain, all this shows an interest in biohacking that is growing. And internationally they stand out The GaudiLab, Hackteria o LaPaillasse, among other.

The idea of ​​a ‘biohacker’ can generate successful companies What Linux, Arduino and OpenSource. The same formula applies to Álvaro Jansà. He studied human biology at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), and discovered the ‘do it yourself’ philosophy, joining Conde at DIYBio BCN. Now he works in Fablab Sant Cugat, which is the first digital manufacturing workshop in Europe to be integrated into a business school such as Esade. As Jansà describes, “Fablab is a company that constitutes an international network of manufacturing laboratories, where we have everything from companies that want to make a prototype to training with Esade students or citizens”. It is a center where you can make things, genetically modify yeast or create a new electric car.

Arduino Workshop
Arduino Workshop – Fablab

There are ‘biohackers’ specialized in robotics. An example of his work is the robot named Opentrons of the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona, which allows the processing of samples to carry out mass PCR tests and diagnose the largest number of people affected by Covid. These types of robots cost millions of euros, but a downloadable open source version allows much cheaper access to this technology.

Jansà describes that as part of DIYBio BCN they devised a gynecological briefcase, to go to the home of a person who lacks state resources or has mobility problems and thus offer a first diagnosis. And instead of costing you 30,000 euros, it cost you 1,000 euros. A low cost kit for rapid screening that would have served to tackle other problems, such as AIDS or Ebola. Likewise, this biologist collaborated with CoronavirusMakers in the development of the first class 3 respirator. For the biologist, it is a milestone of the ‘biohacker’ community that an amateur group managed to get the product to market.

In addition, Fablab has launched two projects currently, a aquaponic system It consists of a fish tank with two floors, a lower one with a classic fish tank and in the upper one there are plants. The idea is that all that the fish excrete is going to be taken up by the plants to grow. If this is done at scale it means saving water, avoiding the use of herbicides not polluting in the process and for the farmer it supposes a double income. Another has to do with kombucha, which is a mixture between a bacterium and a yeast. Traditionally it is used to make drinks, in fact California sells more kombucha than Coca Cola, and now they are looking at how to make textiles with it.

Citizen science

A recent example of shared knowledge is that of Medialab-Prado Madrid, where Ana Andres has led the project responsible for Live Textile Graft. The idea was to work with a textile that was respectful of nature using biomaterials. Thus arose projects such as the development of greenhouses with resistant bioplastics, but that could be degraded, functioning as a natural fertilizer of the earth. Or the generation of wool mixed with clay and extruded with a 3D printer, giving rise to a supermaterial, a project nominated for a national award. As Jansà, from Fablab, affirms, “’biohacking’ is going to transform biotechnology. Must change the chip to understand that it is feasible to make commercial products that are based on this philosophy. A new look at old problems.


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