Your weird uncle, the rogue gene editor, probably has everything he needs to create the next set of CRISPR twins. But what about the friends and associates you’d like to enlist in the Neobiological Revolution? Siblings curious about the family tree? Bright-eyed nieces ready to move beyond explosions of vinegar and baking soda? Aging parents who could use a little help sticking to a workout?
All a biohacker really needs is Gilson Pipetman pipettes, a USB microscope, and an OpenPCR machine. But it’s not just about tools. It’s about switching on a light bulb around the new biology and what it means for the world.
Who knows? Your gift may inspire your loved ones to become full-fledged performance hackers, with their longevity supplements and buttery coffee. Or body hackers, with clever mechanisms inserted under flaps of flesh. Or classic mad scientists, cracking open the nested boxes of biology with a computer simulation, a cleverly constructed piece of DNA, or a hex head screwdriver.
In this spirit of inclusion, here’s a list of gifts for biohackers of all stripes. Some are free, some don’t come cheap (yet). Some can be drop-shipped Amazon Prime style, while others are still in beta-test mode. All have the potential to spark fresh ideas about improving the world we live in.
A few caveats: Many products I use and love didn’t make this list because I have a business relationship with the makers. Consequently, this list isn’t comprehensive. Some items I haven’t tried myself, but I believe that other biohackers, or aspiring biohackers, will get a kick out of them.
Consumers have unprecedented access to cellular agriculture, with Impossible Foods burgers made from plant-based proteins available in over 4,000 U.S. restaurants, including White Castle. But a gift-card burger may not make a great holiday gift.
How about a bottle for the biohacker’s liquor cabinet? Glyph Molecular Whiskey($35) is made not by fermenting grain but by assembling flavor components molecule by molecule. The company analyzes aged whiskey, then recreates the mix of molecules present, growing them in plants and yeasts without any distillation. It’s like the Soylent of sipping whiskeys, except their marketing department would rather you think of it as “note-by-note production.”
Joy to the genes
Biohackers love to know what’s in their DNA. And yours, too. 2018 is the year when many tests entered the category of cheap-to-free. Health and genomic data become increasingly valuable when they represent ever-larger groups of people, because they can yield statistical insights unavailable any other way.
That’s why Nebula Genomics offers free whole-genome sequencing for people who answer surveys and consent to storing their data on the company’s blockchain. The company says results should arrive six to eight weeks after sending a saliva sample, on average.
Similarly, uBiome is offering 250 free microbiome surveys to people diagnosed with certain gut disorders, like inflammatory bowel disease — first come, first served.
And we’re seeing the same thing with epigenetics, a biological mechanism that influences gene expression, which can be used to estimate lifespan. YouSurance offers personal methylation profiles for no cost. The catch? The company uses the information to peek at your lifestyle (smoker? overeater? obsessed with micropigs?) and set your life insurance premium accordingly.
You may not be ready for designer humans, but designer pets are on the way — eventually. The U.S. FDA has come down on dog breeders and biohackers wanting to gene-edit dogs to correct congenital diseases. Gene-edited hornless dairy cattle have moved forward, but, well, they’re too big to fit in a living room, and they won’t use a litter box. In China, BGI’s direct-to-consumer micropigs have been indefinitely delayed or canceled. And I still can’t find a de-extinct woolly mammoth on Amazon or eBay (although that may be changing; see the book section below).
While we wait, we can at least do some genetic testing on more common pets. It’s fun, and pets may be good models for human health, so the data may well serve humanity in the long run. Embark ($199) will analyze your dog’s DNA and return an extensive health report and breed determination. basepaws ($95) covers breed, health, and soon diet for cats, and may interpret behavior markers in future products.
While your loved ones are waiting for those DNA analyses, they could be using technology for better health from day to day. Maybe you gave them a fitness or sleep tracker last year. This time, take it a step further.
IRL Glasses ($49) work like sunglasses, but they also block out light from most glowing screens. Imagine being able to travel by air free of distraction from video screens. Imagine having an extra pair for your date the next time you’re at a restaurant with ubiquitous television monitors. Note: These specs work on LCD and LED screens, but not the newer OLEDs.
Think of the Abbott FreeStyle Libre (reader as low as $70, 10-day sensor from around $36, less with insurance) as a battery gauge for the bloodstream. Blood glucose sensing systems are intended for diabetics, but they can be useful for body hackers trying to fine tune their energy economy or control weight. You can get one in the U.S. with a doctor’s prescription or buy from a European distributor to tide you over until fully implantable glucose meters become a thing.
For the cyborg in the family, there’s the VivoKey Flex One ($1,000). This is not your father’s implantable chip — and not just because your father didn’t have one. Body hackers used the first generation of implantable RFID/NFC devices to open doors, store precious data, and occasionally replace a subway card. But those early units suffered from connection problems. The new generation has much better antennas. They’re still in beta, but early adopters hope to use them before long for cryptocurrency wallets, two-factor authentication, and (dare we hope) paying for coffee at Starbucks. And you thought upgrading a smartphone was painful!
For a less invasive wearable, Stud Briefs (about $60) may be just the ticket. I’m not sure how seriously to take all of the company’s claims: testicular temperature control for improved male fertility, cellphone radiation blocking fabric to minimize germline mutations, antimicrobial treatment to thwart unpleasant odors, improved scrotal support — you tell me what that’s for—but my inner 12-year-old gets a kick out of the marketing.
For the littlest biohacker
If you’ve never heard a kindergartener talk about macrophages and lymphocytes, you owe it to yourself. A Bio-Rad Life Science Education kit (from around $30 to $2,500) gives kids hands-on experience with molecular biology. A major supplier to researchers, Bio-Rad has an entire Life Science Education division devoted to making bite-sized modules with biotech experiments. A good place to start is Genes in a Bottle ($30), with a simple DNA extraction.
The Enjoy Your Cells series (around $10 paperback, $32 hardback) from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is Dr. Seuss for budding cell biologists, by author Fran Balkwill and illustrator Mic Rolph. These books are suggested for ages 7 and up, including Germ Zappers, Have a Nice DNA, and Gene Machines. Also available as coloring books.
Comic books — excuse me, graphic novels — are a great way to present to young minds the complicated subject matter of molecular biology. The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (around $12 paperback, $33 hardback) is one of my favorites, part of a series that’s great for advanced primary and middle schoolers as well as curious adults. Co-author Larry Gonick is a cartoonist for the excellent kid-targeted science magazine Muse, another great gift that costs $21.95 annually.
There was a time when you couldn’t go into a commercial lab without seeing a copy of Blood Music(around $15 paperback, $68 hardback) above the lab bench, right next to the CRC Handbook. Author Greg Bear tells the story of a Silicon Valley scientist who engineers cells that think. A cautionary tale about the end of the world? Or a blueprint for utopia? This one will stimulate budding bioengineers to think deeply about what they want to do.
In Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero: The Beginner’s Guide to Programming Bacteria at Home, School & in the Makerspace(paperback $39), authors Julie Legault and Justin Pahara explain how to make CRISPR-y critters. Their prose is pitched for teenage readers, but ambitious parents of younger children can team up and go far.
I may not get the micropig of my dreams this year, but at least I can imagine having a mammoth petting zoo at my own personal Pleistocene Park. In Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures ($26), author Ben Mezrich points the way.
Biohackers may as well look sharp while they’re at it. T-shirts from the Amorphia Apparel Science! Collection ($20 to $30) feature mutant robots, exploding planets, and other archetypal images that conjure chemistry, robotics, astrophysics, and — of course — biology. The site also lets you customize the designs.
Women in Science: 100 Postcards(under $20) can inspire girls — and boys — to follow their dreams. Illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky’s celebration of female scientists includes two sets of 50 images, one to share and one to keep.
If we’re going to redesign life itself, we need a clear sense of what’s at stake. A subscription to the Pandora Report(free), the weekly newsletter of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, brings global updates about pandemics, bioterrorism, and public health preparedness. A highlight from last week: The creation of the Acute Flaccid Myelitis Task Force “to search for the cause of the mysterious polio-like condition.”
If the Pandora Report seems a less-than-festive option for the germaphobe on your list, there’s always giant microbes($10 to $30). Putting these plush germs under the tree — better to give than to receive? — probably will be the only time you’ll be thanked for giving someone chlamydia.
Hacking for good
In the true holiday spirit, you can be more than a consumer. Become a problem solver, with the gift of a donation to Seeding Labs, a nonprofit that ships donated and used scientific equipment overseas to support researchers on limited budgets. Or log onto DIYbio.org to find a community lab near you, where you might teach a class, mentor a young scientist, donate equipment, or, in the time-tested method of holiday giving, simply write a check.
Thanks to the following people who contributed to this article: Michael Gillam, Alaina Hardie, Kristina Hathaway, Derek Jacoby, Benito Juarez, Jorge Soto, and especially the worldwide network of biohackers, activists, artists, engineers, scientists, and students who work tirelessly to make biotechnology affordable and accessible.