Biohackers can boost trust in biology

DIY scientists in Germany can bring techniques out of the lab and help the country learn to love the field.

Genetically modified corn plants
Attitudes in Germany to biological techniques such as genetic modification reflect deep-seated concerns.Credit: Michael Gottschalk/Photothek/Getty

In most parts of the world, including Berlin, you could — if you wished — do some simple molecular-biology tricks in your kitchen. You might, for instance, insert the gene for the green fluorescent protein into harmless Escherichia coli, and cause the bacteria to glow green. But do so in the German state of Bavaria, and you could go to prison.

Germany’s attitudes towards biology can seem inconsistent, but they stem from a deep fear of repeating history. Many of the country’s politicians see biology as a terrifying business. They sense the nervousness of their electorate towards anything that smacks of interfering with nature — the atrocious experiments done on people by the Nazis continue to resonate. Politicians are also exquisitely attuned to the more fundamental, evolutionary fear of unleashing uncontrollable disease.

These concerns present a dilemma because those politicians would also like biology — now a major, highly competitive international business — to contribute to the German economy, and overzealous regulations make the country a less attractive place for scientists to develop it. Strict monitoring and control over experimental biology is non-negotiable: mistakes could lead to catastrophic consequences for health or the environment, should pathogens or, say, invasive plant species accidentally escape from labs. But over extension of these regulations into areas of biology known to be safe is counterproductive.

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