Biohackers who want to change the world

The idea behind biohacking is to apply the hacker philosophy to the field of biotechnology. “Within the IT world a laptop and Internet connection allow you to do incredible things, even to change the world if you write a good program,” says 29-year-old biohacker Cathal Garvey, who is based in Cork, Ireland. “Today, in terms of biotechnologies as well, you can develop your own tools.”

A geneticist by training, Garvey quit his job in a research institute after discovering biohacking in 2008. He built a personal lab in his home. “In the academic and industrial worlds, I didn’t get to choose what I worked on.” The young scientist is currently focussing on opening Forma Biolabs, a “biomakerspace” in Cork.

Projects range from the production of ink from microorganisms, as done by the La Paillasse Laboratory in Paris, to work on the bacteria involved in fermented Japanese soy.

Sharing is as important as the final result. These DIY research zones, open to the public, strive to encourage discussion and give people a way to understand the technology, which is particularly appropriate at a time when so many people are preoccupied by what they are eating. Biohacking is also flirting with the artistic element, much like the group Hackteria: re-appropriating the techniques of research and industry is also a way of exposing their foundations, questioning their logic and their ties to power structures.

What are the limits? “A code of conduct has been drawn up, notably covering respect for living things and transparency,” says Garvey. And while the biohacker movement willingly works hand-in-hand with local universities, it has avoided ties with industry, hoping to remain a neutral community.