Biohackers: the DIY biologists out to barcode all Hong Kong’s plants, insects and animals

How can you conserve things if you don’t know what is out there and where, asks scientist Gert Grobler, leader of a group aiming to sequence the genes of every living thing in city and possibly find new species

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 7:00am

The word “hacker” usually conjures images of a youth in a hoodie, plotting a cyber attack from his basement. Hong Kong-based genetic biologist Gert Grobler doesn’t fit that description – he’s a hacker of a very different sort.

Grobler, who hails from South Africa, is the founder of DIYbio, a grass-roots initiative set up in March to build a community laboratory in Hong Kong where citizen scientists can come together to conduct biological experiments.

These do-it-yourself scientists have set the bar extremely high for their first major project: they intend to “barcode” Hong Kong’s entire biodiversity.

The barcoding project is a first for Hong Kong, where until now only small-scale genetic studies have been carried out.

“Hong Kong has a very small land area. There’s a lot of development happening all the time. Before we decide to construct in certain areas, we should at least be aware of what’s living there,” Grobler says, adding that there are a lot of species that haven’t been found.

In the future, DIYbio hopes to get local schools involved. “It’s an enormous task; it’s almost an impossible task. So that’s why it’s the perfect community project.

“We want the people of Hong Kong to feel connected with nature, with their environment – to feel a sense of ownership. Sometimes we humans forget that we are not the only species on earth.”

Grobler’s group is part of a growing global movement of DIY biologists, or “biohackers”. While hacking usually carries negative connotations these days, for DIY biologists it just means finding more efficient ways to get things done: instead of buying equipment that costs thousands of dollars, they build their own. This includes their own PCR machines – which they use to look at DNA – and biological 3D printers.

The mission, they say, is to make science accessible to the general public.

“Molecular biology has always been limited to big university laboratories with big budgets,” says Grobler, who moved to the city with his wife four years ago. “But now, with the race to complete a human genome, there have been a lot of innovations, so a lot of these things have become a lot cheaper – really fast. Sequencing genes, for example, is not expensive any more. It’s attainable. You can do it in your basement, and people are doing just that.”

Grobler, who studied molecular biology and genetics in South Africa, and did his master’s degree on the deadly African horse sickness virus, has published four works on his discoveries. For his PhD he shifted his focus to phylogenetics – how species develop over time. “We extract the DNA, sequence it, then compare the differences.”

For his thesis, he went on expeditions to two islands in the subantarctic Indian Ocean, situated about 20 kilometres apart. One, Marion Island, has mice introduced by sailors about 60 years ago. The other, Prince Edward, doesn’t.

Sequencing genes ... is not expensive any more ... You can do it in your basement
Gert Grobler

“It’s very far from anything else, it’s completely isolated,” he says. “So it’s a very nice little laboratory for climate change. Each year, due to global warming, there’s less snow so more mice survive the winter.”

These mice breed like, well, mice. And they’re hungry creatures, devouring everything they find, including a species of weevil that occurs on both islands. So Grobler posed the question: what if the mice ate all the weevils on Marion Island? Would the weevils on Prince Edward serve as a backup for the species?

They compared the DNA sequence of weevils from both islands and discovered that, while the insects look exactly the same, there is a clear genetic split between the two groups. On Marion Island, volcanoes and ice in the past separated the insects into smaller, isolated groups for long enough that, when Grobler sequenced them, they could see differences in the populations. “So actually, a lot of these species are diverging into new subspecies,” he says.

Weevils on remote islands may seem fairly inconsequential, but it’s a concept that could be applied broadly. “Let’s say all the tigers that used to live in Hong Kong had just become extinct,” says Grobler. “And they brought in some identical ones from mainland [China] to repopulate. Would that really be feasible? No. They’re actually a different genetic make-up, so they can’t be a backup.”

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While Grobler and his team were investigating the islands, they began to stumble across new species. “There used to be a lot of amateur biologists in the field, looking at insects, taking photos and trying to figure out their names based on morphology – basically, what they look like,” he says. “That was a huge problem: species went unnoticed, because the differences were so small.”

By studying them on a genetic level, they found they could accurately identify different species. They’d later go back and realise that if they looked harder for the morphological differences between the insects, they could find them.

DIYbio’s first major initiative is to apply this principle to the “Barcode Hong Kong” project. The idea is to assign special barcodes to all the living organisms in the city according to their DNA sequence information. If a barcode has been assigned to a species and someone else finds this species somewhere, they can immediately identify it.

“Hong Kong’s got a huge biodiversity. There are millions of insects and plants and marine life out there, and there are a lot of these things have been looked at on a morphological level but there’s not a lot of it being recorded on a genetic level,” he says.

“And the government has lots of new conservation initiatives, but how can you conserve things if you don’t know what is out there and where it actually is? So what we want to do for this specific project is barcode the biodiversity of Hong Kong.”

They’ll start by looking at plants and insects, because they’re the easiest to collect, then eventually move on to animals. “For mammals, you just need things like hair samples and scat to sequence; you don’t need the actual animal. So as long as we know the animal’s out there we can document it,” Grobler says.

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The DIY biology movement has been gaining momentum over recent years, having begun in the US about five years ago, Grobler says. “Biocurious was the first group, and then Genespace was the first group to actually have a lab; now they are all over the world.”

A more hard-core group of biohackers (also known as “Grinders”) have begun venturing into the realm of body modification.This often involves installing implants to enhance their body’s functions to the point of “superpowers” whether it’s magnetic fingertips or lenses that allow you to see in the dark.

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The open-source nature of the internet has only served to accelerate things further, and as the movement grows, so has the interest of law enforcement agencies. The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation has been monitoring closely the actions of these biohackers.

“Unfortunately there are always going to be crazy people out there – with any kind of technology,” Grobler says. “There are a lot of pathogens, viruses ... if there’s somebody working in a little garage somewhere, you don’t know what they’re cooking up, and that might be dangerous.

“But that’s exactly why these DIY bio groups are really important, in the sense that it’s all open and transparent: anybody can come in and see what you’re doing. And there’s a safety protocol that we all follow.”

The potential – especially now that amateur scientists around the world can tap into an international hive mind – is endless. “There are so many things that people can do,” Grobler says. “People are working on making bacteria that produce certain kinds of antibiotic that we could use in medicine. They’re making bacteria that they can use to take the heavy metals out of water. They’re using 3D printers to print with biological material – they’re printing bones, organs – hearts even. One guy’s trying to print steaks out of muscle cells, to get meat without having to slaughter a cow.”

Our idea is to create a space where anyone in Hong Kong who is curious about biology can come explore and learn from each other and work together to expand our horizons
Gert Grobler

For now, Hong Kong’s biohackers are busy adding equipment to their lab in MakerBay in Yau Tong; they’ve built their own PCR machine and will build some 3D printers.

“Our idea is to create a space where anyone in Hong Kong who is curious about biology can come explore and learn from each other and work together to expand our horizons. Their imagination is the only limit to what they can do,” Grobler says. “And as more and more people put their heads together, more ideas come forward.”

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