Whats in a name?

Not a lot, right? I mean, I could be Jo, Louise, Carla or Julie, but I don’t think it changes my personality. And an apple? Well it’s an apple. Whatever we call it, it doesn’t change the piece of fruit the name is assigned to.

So, why then, is this not the same for everything?

londonOn Tuesday night, I went to visit the London Hackspace. A two story open plan space in east London where about 600 people come and use the space for what ever they like. It is a hive for creative activity. When I walked in there were people drawing and painting, some fixing bicycles, others sawing things. And one group was building their very own laboratory.

It is in this new laboratory that the London DIY Biologists, or Biohackers, as they prefer to call themselves, meet every week to learn about biology. They run their own labs outside university walls, and “tinker” with biology. this group is only in its embryonic stage. They have learned how to grow glowing bacteria, and extract DNA. The next step is to get a licence to be able to play with genetics. This is made easier with synthetic biology, which aims to provide an easy-to-use library of genetic information that can be used in genetic engineering.

I spoke to them for a few hours, trying to figure out what it is they were actually doing. As it turns out, each person is there for their own reasons. One member spoke to me about the general feelings towards what they do:

What I found was that most DIY biologists have their own personal agendas on how synthetic biology should be used, and thereby shaping how it is perceived. On one level, by doing or setting their work outside of the boundaries of professional labs they are already changing the face of the discipline, whether they realise it or not. Biotech isn’t all about ‘men in white coats’.

On another level, people may brand themselves as ‘Biohackers’. There may be various definitions of this, but biohacking isn’t for everyone: not so much in a sense that it is not LIKED by everyone – people may find it uncomfortable, and uneasy about creating genetically modified organisms – but that biohacker don’t necessarily hack life for benefit of the mass groups of people.

For some, biohackers don’t design life to satisfy the needs of consumers. They see it as a practice to fulfill our personal goals and needs. Genetically modified bacteria are being engineered to solve the world food crisis, produce biodiesel from cellulose, and develop fantastic biosensors to predict our health, such as onset of cancer etc. And there are plenty of people who can do that, such as pharmaceutical companies. But with biohacking it’s really about fine tuning the biotechnology that we are given, and finding new roles for those.

So, as it turns out, the two terms: DIY Biology and Biohacking, do have slightly different meanings: DIY Biologists are those that want to learn outside of university walls, and Biohackers are those that are in it for themselves. But are those meanings portrayed to the public through the media, if at all? And how are they portrayed? And how does it make the public feel about these groups of people?

But using the two terms can be confusing for those who don’t know what they mean. These two names have very different meanings to those outside of that world. Hacking is often thought of in terms of computers or finances: “Murdoch reporter hired ‘computer hacker’“; “Anonymous hackers jailed for cyber attacks on financial firms and anti-piracy websites“; “Hackers hit worlds ATMs for millions” etc. These headlines from various international papers don’t paint a positive picture of a hacker.

The term DIY (Do-It-Yourself) instills a certain powerful feeling over people. They are able to take control, and do things for themselves without relying on others. I have managed to put together that table; I painted my house; I built that shed. It makes people feel good to have accomplished something they did for themselves.

So what do people think when they hear the terms DIY Biology or Biohacking? In the media there are a few ways in which these groups are portrayed; either in a positive, revolutionary way, or in a negative and dangerous way. And as the media is probably the greatest source of scientific news for the majority of the public, how does it make them feel? If the groups prefer to be known as Biohackers, rather than DIY Biologists, what message are they sending out to the public? Do they may make the public uneasy, and therefore make what they do more difficult to achieve if the public were to stop them from doing their work?

I’m intrigued to find out what the public think about the two terms, and whether or not they’ve heard of them. And so I am going to go and find out – stay tuned!

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