By: Hope Henderson Through the atrium of an Oakland, CA community center, and down a narrow, paint-spattered hallway, sits Counter Culture Labs (CCL). This bocce-ball-court-turned-research-laboratory has been the east bay home for citizen science and biohacking since 2012. Ongoing projects at CCL include the Real Vegan Cheese project, which is programming yeast to produce milk proteins that can be turned into “real” cheese. Open Insulin aims to develop an open source protocol to produce a low-cost, generic version of insulin. In the Art-n-Science group, people make art by doing things like growing different colored bacteria in patterns to create petri dish paintings. Says CCL co-founder Patrik D’haeseleer: “We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.” I sat down with Maureen Muldavin, president of Counter Culture Labs, to find out more about the ethics and ethos of biohacking and citizen science. Muldavin taught herself molecular biology after leaving college prematurely due to health challenges. Muldavin sees her role as that of a facilitator, stewarding a space where other people can do the scientific research they want to—and that she believes they have the right to.
What is biohacking?
DIYBio Revolution Poster. Image credit: dyibio.org, CC BY-SA 3.0 Biohacking is taking the principles of hacking and computer science and applying them to biology. Whether that’s hacking genetic code, DNA barcoding—the do-it-yourself mindset, taking control over your own science. You can be a biohacker and be an academic. You can be a biohacker and work in a warehouse. You can be a biohacker wherever, but it’s taking control of science. Professional scientists have extensive training. How do people learn science outside of that context? Most people need to be in a social environment that facilitates learning. You need to be associated with the community of practice in order to build up knowledge. Can they make meaningful contributions? Well, one of our most successful members is someone who actually didn’t graduate from high school. He is really passionate about mushrooms. He’s spent the last nine years spending half of his year in Mexico collecting samples and the other half of the year at CCL doing tests. He’s published papers and he’s named ten different species, maybe more. He's considered an expert in his field. I do think it is possible, but you can't bypass having to work at it. Do you think that there are things that citizen scientists bring to the table that professional scientists don’t? One of the biggest things is understanding, at the community level, what’s happening in a way that professional scientists often miss. Why are so many people focused on anti-aging right now, when so many people still die of malaria, when climate change is going to kill us all? So, what you think your problems are comes from your perspective. If you include more of the community, what people think the problems are will change. Citizen science is essential for that. "Citizen science" is really fascinating to me because the word "citizen" is about, What’s my relationship to society? What’s my relationship to government? Do you see biohacking as being engaged in systems of government somehow, as a democratic pursuit? It’s about who has access to knowledge. By giving the community access to knowledge, it has profound political implications. People in Flint knew there was something wrong with the water. I’ve talked to people down in Central California. They know something’s wrong with the water. It’s a yellow color, it smells weird, but they have no ability to engage with that. Their only ability is to try to get someone in power to pay attention to them. By giving the tools to the citizen, it’s saying that you have the ability to engage yourself. You could raise some money, you could have a local biohacking lab, you could have equipment, and you could learn together. You could run your own tests and have your own power. Is the world you would like to see one where anyone who wants to be a scientist has access to equipment and education? It’s more fundamental than that. I think access to knowledge is a human right, because of where knowledge came from. I’m using Arabic numerals, and I’m using techniques first developed in China and in Egypt. It’s this unbroken chain of knowledge that goes back tens of thousands of years. I don’t have a problem with temporary patents, but the idea that you can permanently lock up human knowledge and say, “ We have a right to it”, when it’s built on our culture way beyond just America—just human culture, the whole human project. It just seems fundamentally wrong to me. It’s having science be part of the practice of knowledge that people have access to. If I want to run one scientific test, right now there’s no way for people, even people with a lot of money and interest, to engage with that because the gatekeeping is so high. What do you see for the future of biohacking? I actually have a really ambitious vision of the future. I would like for every community to have their own biohacker space. I would like for science to be part of the opportunities that people have in their life—the same as learning how to write, or joining a book club, or taking a dance class. I want science integrated into society. I want environmentalism to be a part of how communities live their lives, so that it becomes normal for members of the community to be able to DNA barcode plants that they're interested in, and be able to monitor their own environment, and be empowered to engage with their own health, and be able to work on projects to understand their local stream or their local forest, or the air that they're breathing, and have that kind of engagement just be part of what people do, part of how the community behaves. Companies should still be able to have privacy, but all academic research should be open-access for anyone who wants to go and get plenty of expertise to work on a project. I would like for people to feel empowered to understand information on their own terms. I think that scientists should be integrated into society. And that doesn’t mean that people don’t need to study, or that universities don’t need to exist. But it does mean that it can’t be this closed little world anymore.
Hope R. Henderson is a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley, where she uses nematodes as a model organism to study mitochondrial health. Find more of her writing at hrhenderson.journoportfolio.com, or follow her on twitter @hoperhenderson. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect any official position held by SciStarter.