In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Prove the Spirit of Thomas Edison Endures

BacteriaLate one night in 1867 a young man worked after-hours on his own project in a Western Union office in Louisville, Kentucky. The precocious and untrained 20 year-old was experimenting with battery components when he accidently spilled sulfuric acid on the floor, which proceeded to drip in between the wooden floorboards and onto his boss’s desk below. The next morning that myopic boss fired young Thomas Alva Edison, to whom 1,093 patents would eventually be credited, the first few filed within just two years of that day: for an electric vote recorder and the stock ticker.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

In addition to transformative inventions like the incandescent light bulb, the first industrial research lab, and the phonograph, Edison bestowed on us this succinct verbal gem, a response to a New York Times reporter’s question about his failure to find a suitable filament to give the incandescent light bulb longevity:  

 “I have not failed seven hundred times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those seven hundred ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

History is populated with brilliant figures that were derided, unrecognized, or even thought dangerous and wasteful when they first began to tinker. What they had in common was a passion for discovery and the perseverance to solve seemingly insurmountable problems with precious little resources or encouragement. Many of the men and women who experiment today as do-it-yourself biologists or ‘biohackers’ adhere to this tradition. Enabled by cheap, synthetic DNA and basic equipment like pipettes, filters, and test-tubes, practitioners alter bacteria to glow in the dark or change yeast for beer brewing so that it might have the same health benefits as red wine. Others tackle algae or plants with the hope of curing disease and developing new biofuels.

 

Logo for International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition of undergraduate teams, held annually at MIT

Logo for International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition of undergraduate student teams, held annually at MIT

In essence, these new tinkerers are the reincarnation of the hobbyists who have been significant contributors to society and who accurately reflect the American tradition of tenacious pioneering. This is of particular significance today because biotechnology is the new frontier. As the climate warms, the seas rise, and our economy shrinks it’s urgent that we support our most creative and daring minds in all parts of this field, not just the universities and corporate-sponsored labs. The very nature of innovation is favoring models that are more decentralized, open source, and collaborative than before. The brave new world is on its way; let’s have the vision to welcome it. The industrial and digital eras had their great and sometimes unlikely creators, the biological era will too.

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