In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage. In Seattle, a grad-school dropout wants to breed algae in a personal biology lab.
These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes. Some of them buy DNA online, then fiddle with it in hopes of curing diseases or finding new biofuels.
But are biohackers a threat to national security?
That was the question lurking behind a phone call that Katherine Aull got earlier this year. Aull, 23 years old, is designing a customized E. coli in the closet of her Cambridge, Mass., apartment, hoping to help with cancer research.
She's got a DNA "thermocycler" bought on eBay for $59, and an incubator made by combining a styrofoam box with a heating device meant for an iguana cage. A few months ago, she talked about her hobby on DIY Bio, a Web site frequented by biohackers, and her work was noted in New Scientist magazine.
That's when the phone rang. A man saying he was doing research for the U.S. government called with a few polite, pointed questions: How did she build that lab? Did she know other people creating new life forms at home?
The caller said the agency he represented is "used to thinking about rogue states and threats from that," recalls Aull, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate.
The man on the other end of the line was Nils Gilman, a researcher with Monitor 360, a San Francisco company that provides "geo-strategic" research. Gilman declined to identify his client, saying only that it's a branch of the U.S. government involved in biosecurity. "I think they want to know, is this something we need to worry about?" he said — particularly, could the biohackers' gadgets and methods, in the wrong hands, create dangerous pathogens?
Gilman's claim that he is working for the U.S. government couldn't be verified. A Department of Homeland Security official said "it does not appear that we contract with Monitor 360."
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment, and a Department of Defense official said he couldn't find any record of the department hiring Monitor 360 or its parent company, Monitor Group. But he said another arm of Monitor Group has done work for the department in recent years.