Hacking Almost Everything in Amsterdam

01/10/2015 17:38 BST | Updated 01/10/2016 10:12 BST

Housed in the tower of one of Amsterdam's medieval buildings is something quite unexpected--a lab full of machines, incubators, petri dishes, and microbes. It might sound like the beginning of a gothic novel, but this is just where Waag Society's open wetlab--an initiative that strives to make biotechnology more accessible--happens to operate.

Waag Society has been working to open up closed systems since the early 1990's with the advent of the "digital city" (the first public, social use of the internet in the Netherlands). Since then, our organisation has dedicated itself to a philosophy of opening up the black boxes of closed technology: software, hardware, and even methodologies.


Over the past few years, Waag Society has added biotechnology to its list of things that should be opened up to the public. To achieve this goal, the open wetlab developed free workshops to teach people how to work safely in a lab environment, use technical instruments, create useful bio-materials, and run experiments. We also run a more intensive programme, the Biohack Academy to teach students how to setup their own Do-It-Yourself laboratories. And, we actively court artists and designers to use their facilities for personal projects. What, you may ask, comes out of all this? So far, we've seen a microscopic opera, a bacterial typeface, and yogurt fermented by cultures taken from human genitals.

But, it's not all fun in the open wetlab--we also dedicate ourselves to serious research in the field of biotechnology and sustainability. Recently, the lab won a large grant to continue a project begun in 2012 called "BioStrike," in which a collective of Do-It-Yourself Biotechnologists try to solve the modern crisis of antibiotic resistance.

Citizen scientists

The antibiotic resistance problem arose from urbanization, industrialized farming, large water treatment facilities, and lack of compliance among patients. As a result, we now need new antibiotics to fight new microbes. But this task cannot be left in the hands of large pharmaceutical companies, say the members of the Open Wetlab. That system is broken.

You see, new antibiotics are only effective for a short period of time because microbes are always adapting. And, because the high developmental costs outweigh the short efficacy of new antibiotics, these drugs are simply not worth pharmaceutical companies' time. Despite the warnings from WHO that the current antibiotic-resistance crisis could bring about "the end of modern medicine as we know it," market-approved antibiotics have dropped from 16 in 1985 to 0 since 2010. Looking at those numbers, it appears it may be up to "citizen" scientists operating outside the restraints of capitalism to secure sustainable health for future generations.

Question everything

The biohackers at the Open Wetlab believe that antibiotics should be an open technology--that they belong to the commons and to the community. We seek new and creative ways to bring attention to the search for new antibiotics, which can mean working in multidisciplinary teams and learning from artists, designers, DIY biologists, and scientists. We also hope to bring attention to the larger issues--the overarching, industrial systems that caused the resistance in the first place. But, in the end, what we truly hope for is results.