History and science are full of creative minds that seemingly came out of nowhere to solve major problems. In the sciences, vaccines (Edward Jenner), bacterial phage therapy (Félix d’Hérelle) and plate tectonic theory (Alfred Wegener) were all discovered by relative novices or people crossing disciplines to areas of science they weren’t trained in.
In many ways, these unknowns have the advantage of disadvantage. By not knowing what is scientifically possible based on scientific dogma, this makes them freer to ask and propose/discover novel questions and solutions to problems.
The current do-it-yourself and hacking culture in many ways is a continuation of this phenomenon. For example, the biohacking community has created a series of community or collective labs which in many cases allow members of the public to learn how to perform the latest in synthetic biology: DNA sequencing, protein engineering and CRISPR genome editing technique.
Current successes include open-source instructions for medical devices for diabetics and DIY EpiPens. Other projects in the works include community-lab-produced, FDA-approved insulin to reduce the price of insulin, which is a significant cost in the U.S.
Farmers in many ways are the original pioneers in this field. After all, they were the original biohackers with respect to domestication of crops and animals. Good farmers are an observant, creative and patient bunch. And they are pros at making nature work for them.
So, with respect to poultry, what can be hacked and what are the limits? Biohacking a breed that lays golden eggs is probably not possible. But creating chickens that are productive and adaptable to your climate is, in many ways, the perfect biohack.
The most common general rule at community/collective labs is “no use of infectious agents.” Infectious agents are … well, infectious.
Even if they are epi-zoonotic (i.e., don’t infect humans), biological agents can become more infectious and more pathogenic. In a worst-case scenario, they can even jump the species barrier. While the probability of these events is likely low, it’s important to be thoughtful when considering the worst-case scenario of any experiment.
After all, no one wants to be the Typhoid Mary who creates some new superstrain zoonotic Marek’s disease!
The “no use of infectious agents” rule would exclude making a new vaccine against Marek’s or any other poultry disease. However, some have asked the question: “What if we just took the vaccine powder (lyophilized pellet) and split it up into smaller doses?”
For example, to address the issue of having to buy 1,000 doses of MDV (the typical dose that MDV is sold in), split the doses evenly into 100 vials (10 doses in each).
The first difficulty in doing this is sterility. After all, the contents of the vial are going to be injected into your chicken. If some type of bacterial contamination of the vial existed, you would be injecting those bacteria along with the MDV into your chickens.
To do this correctly and safely, you would need access to a laminar flow hood with a sterilizing ultraviolet light. Additional equipment would include a digital scale and access to sterile bottles to redistribute the lyophilized vaccine.
When considering that the cost of the 1,000-dose vaccine is around $30, I don’t see the value and/or risk/reward in it. This isn’t even considering the exacting safety requirements required by the FDA. So, when it comes to vaccines (which are typically inexpensive in the first place), it just doesn’t make sense at multiple levels.
What’s Good Biohacking?
One practical biohacking application would be to develop a new breed of chicken with the goal of having birds that are adapted to a specific climate. Whether you are truly selecting for a new breed or making a chicken “mutt,” the ultimate goal is to develop a chicken that thrives in the condition of your region.
It’s sort of like varieties of grapes that are perfectly developed for a specific soil type.
So, what is a breed? Big picture: A breed is a group of domestic animals that have similar traits (looks, behaviors) that distinguish it from other animals of the same species. With respect to poultry, hundreds of breeds have already been created.
Some are great at meat production (Jersey Giant); some, egg production (White Leghorn). Others produce colored or speckled eggs (deep-chocolate Marans eggs anyone?!). Some are tolerant of extreme heat (Mediterranean types) or even show some resistance to some infectious diseases (Egyptian Fayoumi).
A New Breed
So how does one make a new breed? The answer is biological, as opposed to following breed requirements as established by humans. As alluded to earlier, the difference between creating a viable breed and a mutt is a fine line. However, when you think about the goal—creating a breed that is adapted to your climate—who cares if you create a mutt?!
And poultry is a perfect animal to create with. Chickens become sexually mature at around 20 weeks. Fertilized eggs only take 21 days to hatch. So identifying new traits and successes and failures is less time-intensive than other animals.
Just think if you were trying to establish a new breed of elephants, which aren’t sexually mature until they are around 10 years of age and have a two-year gestation!
Before you get started, think about what physical traits you want. For example, if you live in a hot environment, having bigger combs and waddles will help with heat dissipation.
Prefer to have smaller chickens that make a lot of eggs? (Maybe you live in an urban environment and want backyard eggs.) You would breed bantam breeds that are known to be good egg producers.
You have a lot of discretion because so many different breeds already exist. Do not, however, expect biohacking to create excellent chicks that are good in all areas. If this were the case, we would already have superchickens that produce an egg a day and are resistant to all poultry diseases.
DIY and biohacking, in many ways, are natural extensions of citizen science sans the institution. For many of us, this is a fun and intellectually satisfying exercise and a good way to see how genetics work in the real world.
This affords an interesting opportunity but, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
When in doubt, reach out to your peers for advice about methods and ethics. As a scientist, this is the way we work. This approach produces better science, and collaboration ultimately makes the work more satisfying.