Some call it the Disneyland for adults. With IV vitamin cocktails, hydrogen and life therapies, neurofeedback booths, hyperbaric chambers, ARX Fit workout machines, flow state inducing swings and more, biohacking is the new buzzword. Biohacking allows people to explore the art and science of optimising one’s well-being and performance with diverse biological and technological tools as well as ancient wisdom.
It offers the health-conscious the latest in nutraceuticals, hi-tech wearables, Internet of things, and digital health solutions that are designed to bring about radical self-improvement. Participants get to learn from health and happiness industry experts and innovators, and experiment with cutting edge gadgets and therapies to fine-tune their body and mind.
The beauty of biohacking is, it could be as simple as transforming one’s life using healing foods and meditation, or as complex as creating new life forms by manipulating DNA.
Globally, the biohacking movement, popularised by Dave Asprey and the Bulletproof brand, is gaining significant momentum. Among the biohackers, a special group called grinders subscribe to transhumanist and biopunk ideologies, and apply philosophy and ethics to enhance their bodies with do-it-yourself cybernetic devices.
Hardcore biohackers, on the other hand, go to the extent of embedding chic devices such as RFID tags in their bodies so as to transmit data to their smartphones, remotely open doors and get countless other actions done.
Beyond seemingly eccentric ideas, there are some serious projects as well undertaken by biologists, both amateur and professional, at community-run molecular and micro-biology labs that have come up in major cities across Europe and America such as the London Biohackspace, Open Wetlab, Biocurious, Genspace and La Paillasse, encouraging people to experiment and find novel solutions. Such labs provide access to lab equipment and bench space for individual or collaborative projects.
The DIYbio (Do It Yourself biohacking) movement — independent organisations of biohackers — is focused on breakthrough research and experiments that can significantly impact the way we live. The DIYbio movement has over 4,000 main online-mailing list members, and the numbers are rising exponentially.
Some of their future projects have fancy names such as MindControlBacteria, but are in fact serious research. The underlying philosophy of biohacking is “biology is technology”, and a beautiful elaboration of the whole concept can be found in the similarly titled book by Rob Carlson, a DIYbio pioneer. Biohackers consider DNA as a software that can be manipulated to design biological processes and life enhancing devices.
At the same time, there are apprehensions in some quarters about biohacking ending up as a destructive tool for unscrupulous elements including terrorists who can create killer bugs. Bioterrorism could well be the next threat.
Even though amateur biohacking labs are not that sophisticated today — most activities involve extracting DNA, and only 13 per cent of the biohackers have synthesised a gene and just 3 per cent have genetically engineered a mammalian cell — the fears are not unfounded, feel experts.
Biohacking has opened interesting aesthetic possibilities as well. Synthetic Aesthetics is one such, which involves amateur biologists collaborating with artists and designers on projects such as using bacteria to colour tapestries, grow bags and encode music in DNA. The recently held “Synthetic Aesthetics” fair at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London heralded the advent of this amazing art-science partnership.
On a different note, there is, in biohacking, an element of democratising the rarefied field of advanced biology, as noted by Ellen Jorgensen, the president of Genspace, a community laboratory in Brooklyn. Genspace hosts diverse events, including biohacker boot camps and undertakes projects such as barcoding and cataloguing plants.
The Middle East seems to have missed the bus so far, when it comes to biohacking. Regionally, Oman, with its strong and sustained focus on quality higher education, and policies aimed at creating a sustainable knowledge economy driven by technology and innovation — along with great institutions such as the Research Council and Innovation Park Muscat — biohacking offers tremendous possibilities.
Setting up biohacking labs (possibly on a public-private-partnership model) across the Sultanate can be a game changer, as they can promote scientific temper among the young generation and contribute towards establishing the country as a regional hub for biological and wellness research and allied industries.
T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR