Okay. We have to assume that virtually everyone today is familiar with the term “hacking.” We generally associate this term with computers, and all they mean in our lives. Hackers can be bad or good, depending on your inclinations and politics – freedom fighters of the internet or reckless party goers endangering us all. But hacking has never been limited to the computer world, and the term “biohacking” is becoming more popular in our everyday world.
So, what exactly is biohacking? The definition of “biohacking” can be extremely fluid. The term “hacking” itself originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a means to describe over-stimulated students’ tricks, pranks, and machinations. It gradually evolved into the world of computers, where computer hackers were responsible for the microcomputer revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hacking can mean any attempt, almost on a guerilla level, to improve and improvise. “Biohacking”, as the word implies, involves hacking biology, either our very own body or any other living entity.
Individual biohacking can involve something as simple as taking nutritional supplements or embarking on a program of exercises designed to alter or improve part of a physical being. Changing your diet to include healthier, more natural foods, is biohacking in a very real sense, Simply going outside to bask in the sunlight in order to improve your health and increase vitamin D is, indeed, a simple form of biohacking. And humans have been doing this kind of self-improvement for thousands of years. And we have even biohacked other species. That cute puppy cuddling on your lap would possibly be ripping out your throat if we hadn’t biohacked his wolven ancestors. And modern farmers certainly owe a great debt to their ancient predecessors who tamed wild grains and bred better vegetables. But a simple alteration to our bodies, an improvement here and there, should be of no concern to anyone but ourselves. Breeding animals and plants to serve our needs has certainly proved successful and beneficial. But concerns can certainly arise when the effects of biohacking are ever more far reaching. Should we breed a race of cyber humans, even if it becomes possible?
Perhaps the question of ethics comes into play when we consider how the principles of biohacking our biology can be achieved. It’s one thing to change, and improve, our bodies by external means. A little more sun, a little less processed food, for instance. But, how do we feel about altering ourselves at the most basic level? And how is this even possible? To understand how this can be done, we must first understand, even just a little bit, how our biology works.
Every single living cell in our bodies contains a complex blueprint, a design, a recipe, for how to create a duplicate This blueprint is contained in a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). This DNA is shaped like a twisted ladder, with each rung consisting of two elements. Scientists represent these elements as A, C, T, and G. So, a rung of the ladder will consist of a combination of two of these, such as AC, TG, TA, etc. Each blueprint, or ladder, contains millions of rungs, and is made up of chromosomes. Some chromosomes are long, and some are short, depending on the complexity of the organ or tissue for which they are the code. Human DNA, despite its minuscule size, would stretch to over two meters longs if untwisted and unraveled. Each segment of this chain is responsible for its own job. The DNA within each cell will recognize what each cell needs, and instruct the cell to build proteins. Proteins may be thought of as a tiny, little machines which convert amino acids in the body into new specialized proteins. This is the way a cell keeps itself, and thereby it’s larger biological entity healthy and thriving.
But what would happen if we could change this process? What if we could change the basic code for blue eyes to brown eyes? Or mend a gene that causes some hereditary disease? Some of this is already being done, due to the fact that all living organisms on this planet share, at least to some extent, the same DNA. It’s easy to understand this when we look at, say, chimpanzees and humans. You can almost tell from just this look that we share ninety-six percent of our DNA. But how surprising is it to realize that we share fifty percent of this DNA with the common housefly? Wow! But knowing this, it becomes much more easy to understand how scientists have altered the DNA of certain bacteria to produce insulin, which then can be used to treat diabetes is humans.
Scientists have, for years now, been experimenting with how to treat the human condition at its most basic levels. That is, by altering the building blocks themselves, which make up our biology. If you can isolate the specific gene responsible for height, could you breed a race of giants? And would it be morally responsible to so do? These are questions to be asked in the future. For now, at least, the primary aim must be to reverse, or alleviate, diseases or conditions caused by mistakes in our genes at the very basic level. And this could be possible in certain circumstances using what is commonly called “gene therapy”. This therapy involves either replacing a mutated gene, inactivating said gene, or introducing a new gene. There are a wide variety of diseases or conditions which could benefit from such therapy, including some genetic conditions such as sickle cell anemia, Marfan, cystic fibrosis, and others. Genetic inclinations towards diseases such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity could also possibly be treated successfully. Although all of this sounds so promising, gene therapy. As it manipulates our basic biology, remains extremely risky, and is currently being investigated in applications only to diseases which remain incurable by other means.
While we are, at the moment, taking baby steps into this brave new world, it would seem inevitable that at some point in our future, near or far as that may be, science will tame our genetic code. Instead of going to the beauty parlor, will we simply be able to turn on a gene for blonde hair? Will we be able to live out extended lives in a disease free body, designed to our own exacting standards? As we sit quietly cuddling our glowing puppy, made so by genes transported from some incandescent jellyfish, will we ponder what our lives have become, or simply relish them? I’m hoping for the latter.
Stay tuned for Biohacking Part 2, coming soon!