Contrary to alarmist headlines, the DIYbio movement is an unlikely biosecurity threat.
The 'do-it-yourself' biology (DIYbio) community has had its share of sensationalist headlines exaggerating potential concerns and dangers associated with its work. The latest example came in a New York Times piece (“As D.I.Y. gene editing gains popularity, 'someone is going to get hurt',” May 18, 2018) that conflated work to construct a horsepox virus from synthetic DNA fragments (PLoS ONE 13, e0188453, 2018) with “sounding the alarm about genetic tinkering carried out in garages and living rooms.” It did not matter that the horsepox experiments were carried out in a traditional academic laboratory at the University of Alberta and not in a garage or living room. Nor that the horsepox experiment did not use gene editing. Nor that there are few if any DIYbio spaces capable of carrying out the type of complex experiments required to reconstruct horsepox. The New York Times simply chose to link the DIYbio community with the controversial horsepox experiments to illustrate that “someone somewhere will use the spreading technology to create a bioweapon.”
DIYbio is an easy target for scare stories because it remains something of an unknown. According to the Brookings Institution, there are over 169 DIYbio spaces and as many as 32,500 enthusiasts and followers around the world. These amateurs are part of a rapidly growing social movement in which citizen scientists come together to apply a set of hacking principles to biology—principles that include sharing, openness, decentralization, and free access, all with the goal of world improvement.
Professional scientists often remain dismissive of biohackers, distrusting their lack of training, equipment, facilities, and know-how. Regulators are critical about DIYbio products and kits that enable self-experimentation and treatment—so-called body hacking. But it is law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that focus on biosecurity issues and the potential threat of DIYbio as a source of bioerror (accidental release) or bioterror (malign purpose).
A catastrophic release via bioerror appears unlikely. Most biohackers work on Escherichia coli or yeast—organisms adapted to life in the laboratory and lacking the fitness to survive in the field.
DIY bioterror also seems a long shot. If a rogue biohacker were to seek to create a pathogen from scratch using mail-order DNA fragments, for example, they would likely face a long, uphill struggle. Unlike David Evans' group at the University of Alberta who made the synthetic horsepox, a DIYbio hobbyist is unlikely to convince DNA synthesis companies like GeneArt to ship DNA flagged with “homology to a known pathogen” to their home address. Even if one assumes the biohacker could obtain pathogen DNA without being flagged, the likelihood is low they would have the necessary equipment, containment facilities, or know-how to create a synthetic pathogen (e.g., like horsepox) in their garage or living room. This is difficult work even for trained professional researchers with sophisticated instruments and technical and financial support provided by a traditional institution.
A final aspect that seems to have escaped The New York Times journalists is the strong ethical, open, and transparent culture of DIYbio groups (e.g., see https://diybio.org/codes/) and their proactive attitude to addressing biosafety and biosecurity concerns. Most DIYbio activity is group-based, and these communities not only reinforce altruistic behavior but also would likely spot individuals with nefarious intentions working within their ranks.
Of course, with all the above in mind, it is not impossible that a lone-wolf biohacker could make a synthetic pathogen. But it seems exceedingly unlikely—at least for now. DIYbio has a lot to offer the bioengineering community; it is disappointing that The New York Times sought to overhype its risks rather than explore the movement's potential for low-resource innovation, public engagement, and education.