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The promise and perils of synthetic biology take center stage in a fast-paced new Netflix series

Biohackers

Christian Ditter
Netflix
6 episodes

The first season of the Netflix series Biohackers, consisting of six episodes released on the streaming platform on 20 August, tells a fictional tale centered around the sociotechnological movement known as do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, in which amateurs, professionals, anarchists, and civic-minded citizens push the boundaries of mainstream biology. The show’s main characters include a wealthy biopharmaceutical executive, a group of medical students, a number of stereotypical biohackers making animals glow and plants play music, and a community of transhumanists intent on modifying their bodies for seemingly impractical endeavors.

Whereas biological experimentation was once the sole domain of trained professionals in well-stocked and well-funded institutional labs, the field has been democratized by the emergence of the open-source movement, plummeting sequencing costs, greater access to reagents and devices, the proliferation of online resources, and the emergence of tools and methodologies that enable nonexperts to genetically engineer organisms without years of professional training. [Valid concerns regarding some of the activities associated with the DIY bio community have been voiced by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (1).]

Netflix

Medical student Mia Akerlund (right) meets biohackers pushing the boundaries of mainstream biology.

The show follows Mia Akerlund (played by Luna Wedler), a first-year medical student vying for a position at a prestigious biopharmaceutical firm headed by celebrated professor Tanja Lorenz (Jessica Schwarz). Akerlund and Lorenz clearly have some shared history, as well as their own secrets, although viewers are not privy to the details of either at the start of the series. For much of the first episodes, the relationship between these two enigmatic characters is revealed slowly through both flash-forwards and flashbacks. But we know that a big reveal is coming; the program’s official description teases a “secret so big it could change the fate of humanity.”

Throughout the season’s six fast-paced episodes, the viewer is exposed to technologies and techniques that would be familiar to many professional scientists. And while the time frames of the various experiments conducted are often compressed for dramatic effect, Christian Ditter—the show’s creator, writer, director, and showrunner—goes out of his way to present complex science as accurately as possible. In one montage, for example, we watch various biohackers, some with better aseptic technique than others, add reagents to microcentrifuge tubes, load polymerase chain reaction machines, and examine gels to assess whether they have accurately created a desired genomic sequence. In another scene, a student suffering from a degenerative disease seeks to develop his own cure in a secret lab, where he can work without burdensome oversight. The student injects himself with an unknown liquid, his purported cure. Here, the show’s dialogue surrounding the cure and its antidote (to be administered if things go wrong) offers insight into how RNA interference therapies work.

But the show also serves as a pedagogical vehicle to raise many timely and interesting ethical, legal, and social concerns. From bioluminescent mammals to the collection of genetic material for clinical trials, the series’ storyline highlights how cavalierly we sometimes approach genomic data and genetic engineering. Later episodes depict even more egregious examples of biohacking, including organisms modified to transmit viruses as efficiently as possible. At one point, a character suggests that the ends of her research justify the experimental means, even when her methods demonstrate a gross disregard for test subjects who may suffer as a result.

The show also offers insight into some of the motivations that drive DIY biology efforts. For example, in one scene, a confidant of Akerlund expresses dismay that Lorenz is willing to sell a cheaply acquired drug to desperate patients for inflated prices. Such frustrations are what drive many citizens operating outside traditional institutions to develop their own pharmaceutical solutions.

It is ironic that Biohackers is set in Germany, one of the few places where genetic engineering experimentation outside of licensed facilities is illegal and can result in a fine or even imprisonment (2). Yet, given all that transpires in the show, one is left with the sense that such measures may
be justified.

References and Notes:
1. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, “New directions: The ethics of synthetic biology and emerging technologies” (2010).
2. Sections 8 and 39 of the German Genetic Engineering Act [Gentechnikgesetz (GenTG)].

About the author

The reviewer is at Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies, Herzliya, Israel, and the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA.