The Worry of Biohacking: Closet Frankensteins or Kafkaesque Government?

There’s a piece in the Wall Street Journal today about biohacking: people experimenting with genetically engineered microbes and viruses at home. It tries to inject anxiety into your brain right from the start, with a headline,  “In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover Their Inner Frankenstein–Using Mail-Order DNA and Iguana Heaters, Hobbyists Brew New Life Forms; Is It Risky?”

I was surprised, however, to discover that the reporter does not mention the one time that somebody actually got arrested and charged with biohacking. At last year’s World Science Festival, I moderated a panel with the artist Steven Kurtz, who had just finished navigating a Kafkaesque experience with the FBI for having a PCR machine and some harmless soil bacteria in his house. While we certainly need protection against bioterrorism and risky experiments, we definitely do not need the sort of ignorance of basic biology that was on display in the Kurtz affair.

Eyebeam, the New York gallery that hosted the panel, later posted the talk in several parts on YouTube. I’ve embedded them below. Kurtz has a sad and surreal story to tell.