Hacking life: an introduction to biohacking and transhumanism

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Last Wednesday I spoke on the topics of DIYBio and Transhumanism at the weekly KAT-O Tech Talks organised by my friend Robyn. This is a collection of links and interesting videos that formed part of my presentation.

You can view the presentation below – keeping scrolling for interesting links. I’ve included a bit of the talk for context.

I’m going to tell you a bit about the new DIYBio movement, touch on transhumanism because I happen to think it’s awesome, and then finish by talking briefly about my idea to build my own bioreactor.

Biological research tools have always been exceedingly expensive – as an example, indispensable machines that we use everyday in the lab will cost hundreds of thousands of rands; you also need a lot of equipment, specialised storage etc. This has made it impossible for amateurs or ‘hobbyists’ to get involved. But the prices are dropping rapidly, and in response we are seeing this groundswell movement of people who want to play around with biological tools and systems, and suddenly they’re accessible. The key to DIYBio is that hacker/maker ethic – these people are not waiting around for a company to produce a kit that they can play with, they’re just doing it themselves.

Most biohackers congregate into Hackspaces, much like regular hackers. In the last 5 years, bio-focussed hackspaces have opened up in San Fransisco, New York, London, Baltimore and Los Angeles, to name a few. These are public spaces that make tools, resources and information available to citizens, school students and artists for a reasonable price. They also usually offer introductory courses to teach newcomers the techniques they will need, and will have experienced scientists on board as advisors or team leaders on specific projects.

BioCurious
Genspace
LA Biohackers
London BioHackSpace

Another aspect of the DIYBio movement is a field called synthetic biology. Synthetic biology can be described as biological engineering on the molecular scale. Where researchers try to build a biological system for a specific purpose. Two well known synthetic biology institutions are worth mentioning here. iGEM, or International Genetically Engineered Machine, is a yearly competition open to undergraduate science students. The other is the J. Craig Venter Institute. This institute also uses synthetic biology to try and design new biological systems and tools. Although they are not very DIY-focussed (they are a very well-funded academic institution), the work is similar to that of the DIYers.

A crucial part of DIYBio is that all methodology and safety documentation is shared and distributed online, mostly through public wiki’s. http://www.DIYBio.org is where all of this started in 2008, and it now acts as a central portal for resources and information for biohackers worldwide. Another website, http://www.openwetware.org, provides open-source research methods, protocols and safety information for researchers all over the world. It is a fantastic resource for professional and amateur researchers alike – I used it a lot during my time in academia. Because this is such a new movement (and there is no regulation), there is a major focus on standardising protocols and ensuring that safety is of primary concern. A lot of these wiki’s share that kind of safety information.

Selected interesting DIYBio projects:

Biojewellery – grown bone wedding bands
RoboRoach – a chip to control and track cockroaches for useful applications
Glowing Plant – exactly what it sounds like
Chromochord – the worlds first bioelectric musical instrument
Extending human vision – Biohacking humanity, au naturel
Stranger Visions – building mugshots from found DNA

Some interesting presentations by transhumanists (or grinders – the messy DIYBio side of transhumanism) If you only click once on this post, it should be the video directly below:

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