The BioPunk Revolution
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
If you think that science happens only in shiny biotech companies and solemn university labs, think again.
By Melissa Pandika
Molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen was working at a biotech company in 2009 when she opened her local newspaper’s “News of the Weird” section to a story about people who were trying to use fluorescent proteins to make yogurt glow green — all from the comfort of a makeshift lab in their closet. Typically, lab access is restricted to biotech employees, university students and faculty members. But these renegades had beaten the system.
Jorgensen admired their gusto. In contrast, years of working in the biotech industry had “beaten the enthusiasm and creativity” out of her. But were there other citizen scientists? An Internet search turned up a DIYbio Google group, where she posted a message inviting people to meet. Three people showed up, which grew to five. For about two years, they conducted experiments in a group member’s Brooklyn living room — but realized that a long-term project needed a dedicated lab space.
DIYbio seeks to make biology less the privilege of biotech and academia and more an enterprise accessible to anyone.
Their search led them to a 750-square-foot space atop the weathered Metropolitan Exchange Building in Brooklyn. They converted old restaurant countertops into lab benches, and Jorgensen’s company donated equipment. Fast-forward five years, and Genspace is a bustling community lab whose members range from high school students to a distillery owner curious about the microbes that make his alcohol. Anyone over 18 can join for a $100 monthly membership fee.
But Genspace is only one of about 40 DIY biology (DIYbio) hackerspaces around the world, open to entrepreneurs, artists, students and pretty much anyone curious about biology. Their mission? To democratize biology, making it less the privilege of biotech and academia and more an enterprise accessible to anyone who wants to get their hands wet. After training new members in basic lab safety, hackerspaces provide access to equipment and reagents, training in scientific concepts and techniques, and most of all, a supportive community.
Interest in DIYbio has only flourished since Genspace launched the first-ever biology hackerspace. According to DIYbio.org, there are currently 20 DIY groups in North America, 16 in Europe, two in Asia, and two in Australia and New Zealand.
Some skeptics note that membership and class fees might not sustain these spaces in the long run. And since there’s no government agency dedicated to regulating their activity, DIY biologists could potentially create deadly pathogens from scratch. Others compare DIYbio to “guerrilla theater,” pursuing frivolous, technically simple projects that offer little benefit to society.
Without regulation, DIY biologists could potentially create deadly pathogens from scratch.
DIYbio has its roots in the Maker Movement, which started with techies building their own computers and other electronics. “Now it’s bleeding into all sorts of things,” including biology, thanks largely to the recent affordability of DNA technology, Jorgensen said. But it’s also due to the growth of competitions like iGEM, which supplies student and entrepreneur teams with biological parts to design their own systems and operate them in cells. “The accessibility to people in the field outside of traditional biology has the unintended consequence of opening it to amateurs, as well,” Jorgensen said.
Although DIY biologists initially set up shop in closets and garages, equipment is expensive, and most reagent suppliers won’t ship to a home address. As a result, some argue that full-fledged lab spaces are crucial for the movement.
Some purists still argue that “true” rebellion means opening labs in unconventional spaces. But Jorgensen takes a different view: “My rebellion is publishing,” she said. Since publishing research takes many years, only time will reveal the nascent movement’s scientific impact. Some experts predict that any contribution will probably occur as a citizen science effort, like Genspace’s project to enlist community members to sample bacteria from Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal. These bacteria might have the ability to eat pollutants, which could be exploited to clean other soiled waterways. DIYbio might even lead to biomedical breakthroughs. In 2012, for example, Dutch DIY biologists invented a mobile malaria testing kit that they claim can identify different malaria strains more accurately than existing diagnostic tests.
Besides lowering the barrier to innovation, DIYbio is making it easier than ever for high school students to work on their own molecular biology projects in real-life labs, which aren’t available at most schools. At Genspace, volunteer faculty members mentor students teams for iGEM and other competitions.
But the ultimate goal is for everyone to be scientifically literate. Genspace also attracts bio-artists who plate bacteria in swirling patterns and even custodians and investment bankers who just want a hands-on experience. “We’re in danger as a country of falling behind in STEM,” Jorgensen said. “The more people who are involved, the better.”
Genspace attracts bio-artists, custodians and investment bankers who just want a hands-on experience.
Such enthusiasm is crucial, but so is funding. Membership fees, workshops and fundraising might not offer a long-term solution. Government funds could help, but experts point out that the DIYbio projects that draw the most attention are frivolous — such as the creation of a glow-in-the-dark plant — which might dissuade legitimate funders.
There are also safety concerns. Jim Collins, a biomedical engineering professor at Boston University, thinks that DIYbio isn’t appropriately regulated and probably won’t yield anything valuable. “At best, [DIY biologists] will make a mess; at worse, they will get sick or make someone sick,” he told Nature. A Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars survey, however, found that most experiments are harmless and basic in scope.
Academics regarded biotech with similar disdain when it emerged in the 1980s, noted Gaymon Bennett, a senior researcher at the Center for Biological Futures at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center. In universities, students typically gain expertise from a faculty mentor. “Even if right now, DIYbio looks like boys with toys and not very serious, does this signal a shift where expertise begins to be fostered in different types of spaces?” Bennett said.
Jorgensen is watching the DIYbio movement unfold before her eyes. “There’s certainly potential for having community labs in every major city,” she said. No one can say for sure, but in true DIY spirit, she embraces the unknown. “I have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s the fun of it.”
- Melissa Pandika, Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with an eye to all things science, medicine and more. Likes distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.Contact Melissa Pandika