In a recent crackdown, Germany demonstrated just how serious they are about stopping biohackers, threatening jail time for violators. The risk, as they see it, is the potential for terrorism.
Their concern is the at-home gene editing kits one can buy online. They believe DIYers could create bioweapons then unleash them on Germany.
In actual fact, Germany already had laws on the books prohibiting anyone from tinkering with gene splicing, but one governing body decided they needed to remind the good people of Germany that tinkering was verboten.
Germany has had laws against genetic engineering since long before one could buy Crispr kits online. The kits, however, have reignited the conversation.
Officials thought it wise to remind Germans of the no-tolerance policy on this matter. While in some ways Europe sounds like a more daring place than the States, in other ways the countries of Europe can be more conservative.
They get all the cool new surgeries before us, like laser eye surgery, which they were doing for years before the States. On the other hand, they keep a tight lid on the supplement industry, regulating them more like medicine.
Germany, it seems, feels same about genetic engineering.
For the supplements, the good side is that when you buy St. John’s Wort in Germany, you know exactly what you’re getting. There are regulations about purity and labeling. In fact, they’re so strict, more Germans take St. John’s Wort than Prozac for depression.
The organization that governs these sort of things is the consumer protection office (or the BVL).
The BVL concerns center on the accessibility of the Crispr gene editing kits. For a couple hundred bucks, DIYers can order kits with no restrictions. There is nothing illegal in the kits, but the results of one’s experiments are what concern them.
In an article by Gizmodo, a German Spokesperson said that officials gathered in November to discuss the new online kits. What biohackers see as a way for us to learn more about gene-splicing, the Germans see genetic tampering brought down to the Easy Bake oven level.
In case you didn’t grow up in the ’80s, the Easy Bake oven was a functioning play oven for kids. it worked via two incandescent bulbs. The bulbs heated up enough to bake a little cake made of premixed cake mix.
Ironic that the BVL would reference the Easy Bake oven, an ominous but harmless toy sold in the tens of millions of units. The few injuries from the toy were from fingers getting caught in the door.
If their best comparison is the Easy Bake, then we can look forward to many DIY lab technicians with pinched fingers in the coming years, not so many biologic weapons.
The concern raised by biohackers is that Germany could start an intellectual invasion of other countries in Europe. As go the German laws, follow many European countries.
In time, biohackers may find themselves on the wrong side of the legal wall in more European countries. Although the BVL has not yet exercised this law, biohackers have already gone underground.
Said one German biohacker to Gizmodo, “I think it’s a shame that I’d have to do illegal things in order to do independent research.”
As the law stands, one could apply for permission to perform genetic experiments, but no cases of such applications yet exist. The rules of the law are beyond the reach of most DIYers, requiring a project manager with a master’s degree in science or other such high levels of academic competency.
There are community labs available, where DIYers could potentially work under the watchful eye of a credentialed scientist, but those labs are not everywhere. They also undermine the freedom invigorating the whole biohacker spirit.
To the casual observer, this all sounds like sensible concern on the part of the officials. People had concerns about the Easy Bake oven too, but in time those concerns looked silly. There is only so much damage one can do with two incandescent bulbs.
This writer predicts we will look back with amusement at the concerns raised about at-home Crispr kits.