From hugely successful superhero comics to big budget films about superhuman mutants, there’s evidence all around us involving the fantasy of creating the ultimate being. Short of exposing yourself to radioactive spiders or gamma ray explosions, the new trend of ‘biohacking’ seems to offer the best potential approach to body improvement.
‘Biohackers’ address human biology with the ethic of a hacker. They could be thought of as similar to a computer hacker, only instead of creating and modifying computer software and hardware, the body is the focus of their modification. One type of biohacker are ‘grinders’ who design and install body enhancements. Biohacking also includes do-it-yourself biologists who conduct genetic experiments at home. Biohacking draws individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and specialisms, with teams being composed of research professionals, those from the health care industry and the technical design industry.
What is it that attracts a scientist to biohacking? Ron Shigeta who runs Berkeley Biolabs, a biohacking site California, says biohacking is “a freedom to explore biology, kind of like you would explore good fiction.” The idea of ‘hacking’ seems to be popular because it gives users the freedom to look deeper into something, if only because it really interests them. Further to that, the last year has shown more scientific journal articles withdrawn from publication than any year previously. The ever increasing number of ‘DIY biologists’ are under no pressure to reach or hold a position of tenure and often do not have the need to produce results for monetary reasons. Also, by making information accessible it’s possible to just focus on collaboration and exclude most bias.
A real diverse range of experiments are being tried out. Biohackers from the group Science for the Masses are carrying out a Human Near Infrared perception study, aiming to extend the range of wavelengths that a person can perceive. Tim Cannon, co-founder of Grindhouse Wetware in Pittsburgh heard about magnetic implants and a month later had them installed: "As soon as I heard that you could get this extra sense, I was blown away. Now I can feel electromagnetic fields." The practice of cutting your body up and adding magnets has apparently become quite commonplace. While this isn’t the most advanced kind of procedure, it does suggest a move towards inserting devices to ‘improve’ human ability.
The Grindhouse biohackers are currently working on the Heleed (Human Embedded Light Emitting Dioede Display), an implant that logs data like body temperature and heart rate and uploads it via Bluetooth. They are also developing a compass which, when implanted in to the calf, vibrates according to which direction a user is facing.
Curiosity about what our bodies could be capable of is natural and has inspired a lot of scientific experimentation. A group of independent researchers calling themselves biohackers decided they wanted to improve night-vision. Science for the Masses recently attempted to achieve this by injecting a liquid solution directly into the eyeball of brave biohacker Gabriel Licina. The night-vision solution included a substance called Chlorin e6 (Ce6), isolated from deep-sea fish, which has light-amplifying properties.
The substance was dripped into the conjunctival sacs, which transmitted the Ce6 to the retinas. The
effect started within an hour and lasted for approximately 6 hours. Licina and a control group of four other researchers performed a series of vision tests in a dark field. Note that what was being tested wasn’t truly night-vision but low-light vision. The Ce6 test subject was able to spot and recognize objects, symbols and people in the darkened field that control groups couldn’t see. In fact Licina was able to identify distant figures 100% the time, whereas the controls only managed a 33% identification rate.
The study only used one test subject and few controls, so obviously the results are pretty unreliable. The promised follow up tests will hopefully produce some hard numbers on the degree of light amplification that can be achieved. The group concede that the increased light amplification that they have achieved might have adverse effects on the cellular structure of the eye. Ce6 has been used as a cancer treatment in the past, so we know that it can induce apoptosis (cell suicide) in tumour cells. Of course this means there’s concern that the mixture could also harm the healthy cells of the eye. They are certainly not encouraging the public to try out the chemical.
Current testing done was subjective in nature. The claim “Biohackers can give you night vision” is sensationalist and in its detail not true. The results are purely anecdotal and the experiment doesn’t really have an aim. This chemical solution hasn’t been developed to treat age-related night vision loss. It’s not aimed at the military or secret service. Besides it’s not as though we’re forced to hunt for food in the dark. There’s also no real reason why night vision technology that’s already been developed should be dismissed: it works better than methods that attempt to integrate with the body, and isn’t at all harmful.
For now it looks like actual night vision might still be out of reach. Given its potential harmful effects on the eyes, this is probably for the best. And anyway, I’m holding out for the powers of mind-reading or invisibility.
So what does the future look like for biohackers? Well unfortunately experiments like this are limited by a lack of investment, and probably a lack of serious potential consumers. Progress may be slow, however it is unlikely that it will be stopped or made illegal as the groups tend to experiment on their own bodies only. As with most areas of novel scientific discovery, the dedicated work of a few experimental scientists taking an unorthodox approach will probably bear some interesting results.
Maybe biohacking is about breaking the boundaries of human ability. Or perhaps it’s a rebellion against classical scientific enquiry. Whatever the reasons behind it, biohacking looks set to keep on surprising us.