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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. Ms. 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.
The caller said the agency he represented is "used to thinking about rogue states and threats from that," recalls Ms. 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. Mr. Gilman declined to identify his client, saying only that it's a branch of the U.S. government involved in biosecurity.
Previously, some researchers and law-enforcement officials have raised red flags. In a paper published in Nature Biotechnology in 2007, a group of scientists and FBI officials called for better oversight of so-called synthetic DNA, an ingredient widely used by professional biologists and hobbyists, saying it could theoretically lead to the creation of harmful viruses like Ebola or smallpox, since their genomes are available online.
"Current government oversight of the DNA-synthesis industry falls short of addressing this unfortunate reality," the paper said. Ms. Aull, who lives with a cat and three roommates who are "a little bit weirded out" by her experiments, says the worries are overblown.
DIY biologists are trying to "build a slingshot," she says, "and there are people out there talking about, oh, no, what happens if they move on to nuclear weapons?"
Other biohackers argue that Mother Nature is more likely than any home hobbyist to create dangerous new pathogens. They cite the current A/H1N1 "swine flu" virus, which is a made-in-the-wild brew of human, bird and pig influenzas. Mackenzie Cowell, a founder of DIY Bio, says members aim to do good and are committed to working safely.
So far, most garage biologists playing around with synthetic DNA are simply adding a gene or two to an existing organism, a fairly standard scientific practice involving some test-tube mixing, and not something biosecurity experts are very worried about. But technology promises to allow the creation of entire organisms from scratch -- something academics are aiming to do in university labs -- and that has some experts worried.
A senior official in the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate says the bureau is working with academia and industry to raise awareness about biosecurity, "particularly in light of the expansion of affordable molecular biology equipment" and genetic databases
Phil Holtzman, a college student and part-time DJ at dance parties in Berkeley, Calif., is growing viruses in his attic that he thinks could be useful in medicine someday. Using pipettes and other equipment borrowed from his community college, he extracts viruses called bacteriophage from sewage and grows them in petri dishes.
Mr. Holtzman's goal: Breed them to survive the high temperatures of the human body, where he thinks they might be useful in killing bad bacteria. He collects partly treated sewage water from a network of underground tunnels in the Berkeley area, jumping a chain-link fence to get to the source. But Mr. Holtzman says his roommates are "really uncomfortable" with him working with sewage water, so he's trying to find another source of bacteriophage.