Biohackers of Singapore: Promise of a Biotech Revolution?


Among the Maker Movement, there are those that deal with more exotic materials and craft. Who are they? They’re the biohackers, designing and altering the essence of life itself. Silicon, plastic and metals are just some of the materials makers use. But what about the more exotic? Some Makers code with carbon. More specifically, with DNA, most ancient and elegant of codes.

Such biohacking is a pillar of the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology. Playing with DNA is increasingly a ‘garage band’ kind of venture. The basic techniques and technology are now sufficiently disseminated so that any reasonably bright and inquisitive person can do all kinds of interesting things in a home or community lab.

However, might that not include weaponising Ebola, or involve some other highly anti-social endeavour? Bioterrorism? Zombie outbreaks? Those fears are overblown, according to Nina DiPrimio, the editor of BioCoder, a quarterly published by and for the DIYbio (as in, Do It Yourself biology) community, which it serves as an agora.

Explaining the Fears

Endowing  viruses requires equipment and expertise usually found only in large government, university or corporate labs. Secondly, if anyone wants to attempt it, the mischief-maker wouldn’t need to figure out how to manipulate Ebola or HIV.

Relatively simple procedures are available for weaponising basic anthrax, or manufacturing and distributing astoundingly powerful poisons such as ricin. It takes expertise and equipment to do malicious harms with gene-spliced microbes. However the potential dangers shouldn’t be ignored. Any regulation addressing it needs to enable safety, while not stifling the growth of the field.

Biohackers also face safety concerns with DIY operations. As part of a measure to address this, BioCoder has articles highlighting lab legality and emphasising basic protocols.

DiPrimio explained “I prefer the term ‘accessible biology’ rather than ‘synthetic biology’ to describe what we’re doing. There’s a tremendous interest in DIYbio, and we’re here to serve that. One thing we try to stress is the importance of working with mentors. More than anything, we need qualified people who are willing to teach.”

Central to the DIYbio ethic is hardware bootstrapping – making functional equipment out of odds and ends. And something all Makers can relate to.DiPrimio cites the example of a homemade gel imager.  Such devices are used to “photograph” nucleic acids and are essential for DNA research. Professional models can cost US $8000 or more.

“We built one out of a cardboard box, a blue LED to provide illumination, an orange Lucite sheet to serve as a filter, and an iPhone to capture the images,” shares DiPrimio on building a cheaper alternative.

Initiatives undertaken by DIYbio enthusiasts include: creating a barcoded genetic database for mushrooms and crowdfunding a bioluminescent plant project. The current state of biology and the biotechnology sector has been compared to computing in 1975, just before PCs burst on the scene and changed everything forever.

Massive technological, economic and social shifts are often preceded by play. Indeed, many biohackers already have embarked on start-ups that seek to provide solutions to very real needs, becoming bioentrepreneurs in the process.

DiPrimio is also one of these bioentrepreneurs. She’s a principal at Perlstein Lab, a San Francisco firm dedicated to developing “orphan” drugs—medications targeted at rare diseases. Large pharmaceutical firms (e.g. GlaxoSmithKline) are uninterested in developing such drugs due to a lack of sufficient profitability. This creates an opportunity space for bioentrepreneurs and biotechnologists to serve a real need.

DIY Biology

DIY Biology covers a broad spectrum. It can refer to trained scientists seeking funding for a project going, academic lab groups that build their own hardware or an individual using an OpenPCR machine trying to isolate strawberry DNA. These communities span academia, industry, incubator spaces and community lab spaces.

In Singapore, Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, as the growth markets expand, it may serve Makers well to realise where opportunities lie. Given Singapore’s status as global biotechnology centre, opportunities abound for the daring biotechnologist and biohacker.

Wealth lies not just in the reams of binary code that underly software, the silicon of wearable computers and the hard metals and ceramics of digital fabrication. It lies in the elegant genetic code of organisms and the tools of the simple lab.

Fostering these biohackers and growing the ability for individual hobbyists to pursue this craft at the grassroots would generate long-term benefits for the biotechnology sector here. Growing interest and combining perspectives from different disciplines, a treasure trove of biotech products could emerge.

With the clustering of private and public institutions committed to pursuing innovation in biotechnology, biomedical sciences and devices as well as proliferation of entrepreneurs attracted to the city-state, biotech may just be the next big growth area that turns the Little Red Dot into a nerve cluster of biotech activity.