In the future, as the capability to ‘hack’ life increases who or what will regulate ethics?

Biological sciences have seen incredible advances in the past fifty years. Since Watson and Crick first determined the structure of DNA in 1953, there have been countless advances that have allowed companies, states and even interested individuals to start experimenting with ‘life’ as we know it. Traditionally, most advances were made in academic research institutions, but over the years more and more corporate research has been conducted meaning that breakthroughs occur in both sectors. But In recent years, with the greater pooling of knowledge and research through the internet and more and more commercially available equipment a third sector has started to grow. The interested ‘hobbyist’ who tinkers in their basement to produce different genes and even life forms. Today, this practice often referred to as bio-hacking, which, is generally seen to be conducted by a community of interested individuals rather than government, academic or commercial groups.

Alba, the fluorescent bunny, was genetically engineered in 2000, she was produced by Artist Eduardo Kac.

The term ‘Biohacking’ refers to the practice of combining biological research with the modern day phenomenon of ‘hacking’. However, there are slight differences in meaning. In the classic, computer based context ‘hacking’ a network generally focuses on exploiting weaknesses and circumventing controls. The developing biohacker community has more positive focus and rather than seeking to exploit weakness it is about seeking to understand how something works and attempting to change it, often simply to see what happens.

The increasing interest in this area and the potential further development of a ‘movement’ or established community will probably lead to some interesting ethical discussions, in which the state will have to play a part. Historically, the notion of ‘Genetic engineering’ has been a controversial one in many cultures. In the UK particularly, the notion of ‘Frankenstein foods’ has been a long-standing political issue. Generally, at least in democractic states, discussions and policies to do with ‘life’ tends to be driven by the view of its populace. In Western democratic systems, the prevelance of Christianity, tends to shape peoples beliefs and mean that political choices are often made to contain and control such research with a view to to keeping it at an ‘morally acceptible’ levels within legal guidelines. These guidelines seek to reflect the general consensus of the society that they serve. This is especially the case for the UK, because genetic manipulation is seen as a political issue, ethical standards are developed to keep its application confined to particular types of research – the rules for genetic engineering the UK are set by the Medical Research Council, state it is legal to genetically engineer mice, cows, pigs, sheep and goats. This means that today, the rules for what is allowed for researching on ‘life’ is set, or driven by, the state, and in a democracy, is representative of the will of the people.

So, at the state-level, there are checks and balances put in place to ensure the rules on ‘life’ research reflect the overall will of the people. But, in the future, in a world of increasing global interconnectedness, greater individual empowerment and increased diversity of corporations and services (see the Open Futures Project for more details behind these potential trends), who will regulate or ensure a consistent ethical code of conduct for research? But, before we get to this, let’s look at the other players in the life research game and consider who could be the key agents of change in the future.


Research into ‘genetic engineering’ has long been controversial, especially when conducted by a corporation. The perception is that a company, generally a generic multinational is manipulating and creating new forms of life that are created to make more profit. This may or not be true. Certainly, a company’s bottom line is profit, but current legislation seems to be quite good at holding companies to account, generally because they have to operate and/or trade somewhere in the West. For example, one of the more controversial ‘agri-bio’ companies of recent years, Monsanto, is frequently moderated by the US legal system to avoid the undue release of genetically modified seeds and foodstuffs. So, possibly, corporations wishing to research and release genetically modified life forms in certain countries and markets will face different rules and regulations. Similar to governments, the larger a company becomes, the more it becomes a subject to its own reputation and perhaps, more significantly, its shareholders.

The Rest of the world

As genetic research is generally subject to legal checks and balances and the political considerations of societal belief on the sanctity of life, its usage varies by country. Emerging players around the world are developing genetic research and are applying different measures of judgement for their application. For example, in China it is considered ethically unreasonable not to use any form of clinical practice that can help improve a person’s life, so the alteration of the genome/life to improve human life is considered perfectly acceptable.

Around there world, there are a range of different national policies toward genetic manipulation of both ‘life’ and specifically the human genome and how this research is applied to medicine, as well the production of food and animal products. Many states do not apply the same laws or ethical principles on how research is conducted, this is not to say that don’t have frameworks, it is that they are different, and this difference can amount to allowing a wide range of differing laws (sometimes with no laws at all) that allow multinational corporations and individuals to conduct research that would be illegal in another country.

The Biohackers

Now, we return to the biohackers. As a group they represent a relatively new entry to the field and what’s interesting is that they neither work for a corporation, university or a government. They are a new breed (not a genetically altered one, well not yet!) in the area of genetic research. Essentially, they are enthusiasts empowered by the increasing availability of genetic research equipment and material. Using material on-line people are learning to develop and grow their own forms of life; they are hobby cloners – the biohackers, the people who are learning how to ‘crack life’ in their own time. Some are motivated by interest, others by profit, either way, they represent a new movement, a group from the individual level who, may be more empowered to deliver considerable social changes, especially if they desire to research upon themselves and other volunteers. Interestingly, he biohacking cause, has been likened to the development of steam power in the 17th century, where interested individuals such as James Watt, developed their own research and ideas that helped power the industrial revolution.

What does this mean for the future and who, or what could regulate research on ‘life’?

Commercial drivers for genetic engineering are likely to continue. The demands of a growing planet with less resources could mean that the need to produce more efficient or more hardy types of life, (or perhaps drive the development of synthetic meat) – See ‘The Open Futures Project, The Natural World’. However, the growth of ‘interest-based’ researchers linked through online communities are likely to increase the speed of research and the pace of new developments and discoveries. As these occur, society and culture will adapt. What is considered controversial today and where there are moral objections on genetic research will probably alter over time. How will each generation respond, what will be taboo? What are their thoughts to dolly the sheep, how did they develop, how did people react to Alba? And what will be extreme or taboo in the future? How will society respond to fringe groups and lone inventors who create on new forms or life or augment their own bodies with biological or physical enhancements? At what pace could such challenges take hold and how could they challenge the norms and values of societies such as the west, which, although open, still takes many of its key philosophical and moral steers from the Christian faith?

However, as well as all the potential advancements and possible social changes it is worth also reflecting on potential risks. As more researchers are confident and empowered to alter and change life, new forms of new and altered species are likely to come into existence. If this is conducted for offensive purposes, the creation of dangerous diseases by accident or design from either a rogue state or an unhinged individual increases. The possibility of such a risk, will probably lead to state/regulatory interest in movements such as biohacking, in order to undertake its most basic remit of providing security to its citizens. So, either through the state or the market, at some point legislation and monitoring will occur. States will increasingly have to alter and adjust their positions to control and provide order to a game that enrages many of their citizens, whilst protecting the rights of those who seek to play. The development of ‘biohacking’ as a movement or a cause, could be the first step in social change that exposes an ongoing political tension for many Western states who have to arbitrate between the bible and the biohackers.