Three-dimensional printing has been making headlines lately with incredible breakthroughs. The process, called “additive manufacturing,” uses technology to literally create objects by printing them. (As opposed to traditional “subtractive” manufacturing which starts with raw materials and essentially whittles them away to create a finished product.)
What’s the next step in three-dimensional printing? Printing living things from scratch, for starters. A group of so-called “biohackers” at a community biology laboratory in California, called “BioCurious”, reported that it created a do-it-yourself inkjet printer that can print living cells.
A “biohacker” is a person who uses computer hacker-style tactics to do do-it-yourself-tinkering in the biosciences: hobbyist gene sequencing from the home, for example. The movement, which also sometimes calls itself “biopunk,” advocates for a more open and progressive approach to genetics and DNA and other biological breakthroughs in a nonhierarchical movement.
The BioCurious Group says their bioprinting process is similar to 3-D printing, but “with squishier ingredients.” The group disassembled an old HP 5150 inkjet printer and modified it for use as a bioprinter. They bought new ink cartridges and disassembled (there are detailed instructions on their website) them so they could fill the cartridges with a solution in which they had grown E-coli, but they emphasized that antibiotics or proteins, such as enzymes or growth factors, could also be used. Ultimately, the group printed the BioCurious “eyeball” logo with biological material.
MIT Technology Review’s Jessica Leber notes that the BioCurious experiment isn’t a fundamental breakthrough — academic and corporate research labs already work with more sophisticated 3-D printing equipment to layer cells and build artificial tissue structures as they try to engineer entire organs and replacement human parts, but this is the first time it has been done by amateur tinkerers (or “biohackers”).
There are some objections to the idea of biohacking. A lurid imagination can conjure up images of do-it-yourself cloning projects and many other objects of science fiction horror films. While the industry is far away from printing a face-hugging alien or a nine-foot-tall basketball star, these early breakthroughs show that bio-engineering isn’t just for the professional lab anymore.
Edited by Brooke Neuman