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Hackers breach biology to transform life into building material

September 23, 2014 at 9:20 PM EDT
How do you transform mushrooms into furniture, or re-wire algae to conduct electricity? Biohacking, the practice of rewiring the biology of living organisms for practical uses, is evolving from a fringe science to a more legitimate academic discipline. But just as the movement is gathering converts, it’s also attracting controversy. Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Imagine a world where mushrooms can be turned into furniture, algae can be used to conduct electricity, and glowing plants can replace streetlights. Those are examples of what’s become known as biohacking, a diverse movement that is gathering steam, converts and controversy.

“NewsHour” special correspondent Spencer Michels explains.

SPENCER MICHELS: In private and university labs, students and volunteers are messing with biology. They are engaged in what’s become known as biohacking.

Stanford bioengineering Professor Drew Endy:

DREW ENDY, Stanford University: Hacking is a positive term, and it means learning about stuff by building, and trying to make things and seeing what happens.

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s what they’re doing at Berkeley BioLabs. Biohackers here are delving into biological systems, trying to figure out how the DNA in plants is controlled, how to build an inexpensive photometer for biological research, and how to use algae to make batteries.

MAN: You’re not making electricity. You’re storing electricity that you can recover later.

SPENCER MICHELS: This is one of a growing number of biohacking locations, mostly off campus, where biology has become a citizen sport, a place where anyone with or without training can do hands-on biology, and perhaps change the world.

It is a new, less formal way of practicing biology than in many university or commercial labs.

Ron Shigeta, a Ph.D., chemist and biologist, co-founded the lab a year ago.

RON SHIGETA, Berkeley BioLabs: Biohacking is a sort of like ability to walk into a space like ours and follow your curiosity, and sort of not have the limits, someone coming and say to you, like, no, you can’t do that, you’re not an expert, you don’t know anything about this.

You can come in, and you can look at bacteria. You can — might take a little piece of plant and grow the plant up and try to change its properties. You can even take your food apart and look at the biological things that are living in the food and making it tasty and nutritious.

MAN: We’re a team of citizen scientists and biohackers.

SPENCER MICHELS: One group of hackers has posted video online to raise money, so they can produce a vegan cheese made from reprogrammed yeast.

MAN: The genetically modified yeast will produce cheese protein as it grows

SPENCER MICHELS: What started as a fringe science has become almost mainstream. Stanford University has constructed a new lab dedicated to synthetic biology, a formal term for biohacking.

Staffed by a combination of Ph.D.s and undergraduates volunteering their time, it’s run by Professor Endy, one of the leaders of the movement.

DREW ENDY: As an engineer working with biology, I view biology not as a science, but as a platform for making, for manufacturing. I want to figure out how to partner with life to make the things we need in a way that’s sustainable and beautiful.

PHILIP ROSS, Artist/Biohacker: This is a locally grown organic mushroom chair.

SPENCER MICHELS: Endy points to San Francisco artist Philip Ross, a former cook, as a biohacker who is using biology to make art works and sustainable building materials.

Ross takes common reishi mushrooms, feeds them sawdust or other cellulose waste, like peanut shavings, and produces a new, recyclable material he shapes into chairs or bricks.

PHILIP ROSS: I’m able to transform them into something that doesn’t look at all like what we’re familiar with as a mushroom. It could be seen as biohacking, in that I’m taking an organism, and I’m making it do things that might not be immediately obvious or apparent.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ross has founded a firm, MycoWorks, to produce and market his products.

PHILIP ROSS: In pretty short order, I expect to be producing millions of tons of fungi on the planet Earth.

SPENCER MICHELS: Not all biohackers are having the success Ross has had, but in makeshift labs like this one, hundreds of would-be scientists are working toward that aha moment.

Biohackers like to compare the revolution they believe they are part of to the early days of the computer. At first, computers were only used by some individuals, insiders, but then they became much more commonplace, and they changed the entire society. Now biologists think that they are part of a revolution similar to the computer.

Endy is convinced the natural world, forests and oceans and deserts, provide models for man, flourishing biosystems that generate huge amounts of power, hackable systems that will teach us to be more productive and creative.

DREW ENDY: What happens if we could do something like grow a cell phone using a mushroom, to physically make electronics?

SPENCER MICHELS: Literally grow the entire cell phone, or grow some parts of it that you put into a cell phone?

DREW ENDY: Obviously, we’d start with figuring out how to grow parts, and then we’d see how far we could take it.

SPENCER MICHELS: The biohackers at Glowing Plant in San Francisco are shooting for a more modest goal. Using this video, they raised around half-a-million dollars to research how to make a normal plant glow in the dark using DNA from a squid.

ANTONY EVANS, Glowing Plant: What if we used trees to light our streets, instead of electric street lamps?

SPENCER MICHELS: Antony Evans, not a biologist, but a marketing specialist, is co-founder.

ANTONY EVANS: Bioluminescence is the process by which biological organisms make light from their DNA. So we go online, we download the genes responsible for making a bacteria glow. We take these DNA sequences. We put them on our software, and we press print. I mean, it’s nearly as simple as that.

SPENCER MICHELS: So far, the Glowing Plant is very dim. But in two years, Evans expects tens of thousands of times more brightness. And even now, people are investing in the technology and buying the plants.

The Glowing Plant was pioneered at BioCurious, a biohacking lab in Silicon Valley where the hackers all ages, all disciplines are now experimenting with bioprinting. That’s a technique that uses a modified ink-jet printer to produce biological results.

BioCurious founder Eri Gentry sees the possibility of printing body parts.

ERI GENTRY, Founder, BioCurious: What if you could take stem cells from your own body and have these be differentiated into heart cells that are placed on a scaffold that’s printed for pennies, maybe a few dollars, grown up, and then transplanted back into your own body, with your own materials?  And the way that hackers think is, hey, that’s not so hard. I can do that.

SPENCER MICHELS: But biohacking has plenty of detractors, critics who warn that unregulated biology poses dangers to the environment and to humans.

One of those skeptics is Dana Perls, who is an activist with Friends of the Earth.

DANA PERLS, Friends of the Earth: Do we really think that reprogramming life in garages is not going to encounter some sort of mistakes, some sort of problem?  This has to be taken really seriously. We’re not talking about people who are entirely trained.

SPENCER MICHELS: Perls says the field of biohacking is too new to be allowed free rein.

DANA PERLS: If and when these organisms escape into the environment, we won’t know how to recall them or clean them up. This is a very new field of technology about which we know very little. It’s unregulated. It’s virtually unassessed. And we need to be sure that we have national, international regulation, safety assessments, and safety precautions.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Endy counters that biohackers do observe safety rules, even though those rules aren’t entirely clear at this point. And he says law enforcement is working with the community to develop safe practices.

DREW ENDY: Just because you’re not at an institution when it comes to biohacking doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules.

And you might be surprised, but, for example, the FBI field office in San Francisco has field agents who are in charge of making sure that the local so-called biohacking community is operating responsibly.

SPENCER MICHELS: The debate over the ethics and legality of biohacking has just begun. It will be played out as do-it-yourself biologists hack their way into natural systems, not sure what they will find.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Spencer has more online, including how one ambitious biohacker tinkers with his own body, in the hope of improving himself physically and mentally.