Trust me, I’m a hacker.
The first thought I had when asked about setting up a lab to hack life as we know it was: (as you would expect) cool! How much fun would that be! Soon followed by a second thought: I wonder if The Edge has enough insurance to cover me if something goes horribly wrong, and causes the replacement of the planet’s biota with bespoke bugs that glow in three different colours.
Googling soon found a code of biohacker ethics that prescribes respect for the living environment, only using biotechnology for peaceful purposes and remembering that you don’t know everything (though this last one was only adopted in Europe, and not America). No evidence of a list of prescribed penalties, but becoming the likely first victim of your own creation is probably sanction enough. Strangely, I couldn’t find a binding code for the military industrial complex, just lots of earnest discussion and references to a ‘disposition matrix’ of stealth drones, weaponised toxins and other black ops to deal with their problems.
In reality, the truly nasty beasts are only available to the governments that seem most concerned about citizens playing around in their petri dishes, trying to create bugs that remove plastic waste from the oceans, or startle their friends with luminescent lifeforms. And we all know how bound by ethics and safety such organisations are, as the anthrax scare of 2001 demonstrated. The closest anyone has yet come to making the fear campaigns come true by manufacturing superbugs was in 2002 when researchers (funded by DARPA) synthesised the polio virus, and in 2005 when Science (not exactly renowned as the champion of DIYbio) reported that the Spanish flu virus from 1918 (already responsible for the deaths of over 20 million people) had been recreated in a lab.
On the other hand, the organisms available to biohackers are crippled bacteria, incapable of surviving without special nutrients rarely found in nature. Even the basic requirement to keep cultures isolated from contamination naturally works against them escaping to the environment. The genetic building blocks provided by BioBricks could recombine in unfortunate ways, but they could also be used to create suicide mechanisms triggered when a construct’s population reached a critical size. And nature already does a pretty good job of creating drug-resistant superbugs, among other nasties (as the expert opinion opposite shows — click the picture to make it easier to read).
It seems to me that the real ethical choice is between secret and government, or open-access and public. Or between Craig Venter and the Microbesoft approach of attempting to patent life, and Biobricks open-source, peer-mediated hacking community. I know which one I would rather trust.