Online technologies are transforming the field of biology, facilitating research in areas such as genomics – and it’s not just the professionals getting involved. The biohacking community continues to expand across the globe as the practice evolves to utilise online platforms. Here, BIA member CMS explores the biohacking revolution and the legal challenges it poses.

What is biohacking?

Biohacking is not a clearly defined concept but as the name suggests it can be generally defined as applying the hacker ethic to biology. Opinions differ, but anything from experimentation with synthetic (artificial) DNA through to worryingly named ‘DIY’ body enhancements, may be considered biohacking. This emerging and growing practice is normally associated with independent biologists and scientists ranging from professionals to curious amateurs: these are the biohackers.

Already the biohacking movement is giving rise to a wide spectrum of legal issues, and its rapid move online may throw up more yet. How the law develops and whether it can keep up will be interesting to see, particularly as the practice of online biohacking gains potency.

Biohacking in the technology age

Through online technologies such as cloud computing, biology itself is being transformed. Tech giants such as Google are creating cloud genomics platforms to facilitate genomic research. Start-ups are also taking a slice of the pie by creating web-based virtual labs, electronic lab books, cloud storage and open-source DNA design tools. These online platforms allow biohackers around the globe to experiment, collaborate and share research and resources to ‘hack’, sequence, reproduce, modify and/or create anything from living organisms or tissues, to medicines and foods.

Synbiota is an example of a biodevelopment platform which can also be used for biohacking. Mason Edwards, CTO of start-up Synbiota Inc, comments:

Accessible biohacking tools combined with the cost reductions of synthetic biology are spearheading the way for a new and dynamic industry. The rate of innovation is increasing and we’re on the cusp of a revolution that will dwarf the information age.

The regulation of biohacking

Whilst online biohacking activity is still an emerging trend, it is a fast-growing one. Despite this, online science platforms and biohacking communities remain largely unregulated, at least expressly.

It is conceivable that some biohacking projects may fall within existing biosafety, biosecurity or dangerous substances regulatory regimes which in part govern innovative technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology. But like these technologies, biohacking may develop and evolve at such a rate that its governing legislation struggles to keep pace. Looking at genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for example, whilst Europe has some of the strictest rules concerning GMOs in the world, developments in technologies such as synthetic biology have meant that certain projects fall outside their regulatory remit, requiring legislative changes which still may not be watertight.

Other considerations may arise through, for instance, the online sharing and modification of an individual’s genetic data, which may warrant further advances in, for example, data protection laws (see our previous blog on Genomics).

IP issues also arise: the virtual connectivity and the instantaneous sharing of data enable scientists to ‘hack’ protected products and processes, for example, to produce genetically identical synthetic versions more quickly and efficiently and often at a significantly cheaper price. With so many scientists coming together to work on projects over virtual platforms, it may be difficult to track developments and identify infringers. Similarly, in the absence of defined rules or agreements, issues also arise for the biohackers themselves such as to how IP rights in newly developed products will be shared among online contributors.

The world has seen how social media has transformed social communication. We will now see how virtual labs, connectivity and clouds will transform the progression of science.

Authors: Sinead Oryszczuk, Lawyer, CMS; Louise Edwards, Lawyer, CMS

CMS will be hosting a series of webinars on some of the key trends impacting the life sciences sector this year. More details available here.