The People's Lab

Amateurs have the freedom to experiment and innovate – watch out for their impact.

By | March 1, 2009

I sit on the advisory board of an art gallery that exhibits contemporary artists who engage with science and technology. Last December, the curator had some exciting news in his end-of-year email: His gallery was proposing to join forces with a number of other organizations to create a multi-use venue that would offer small-scale fabrication facilities for makers, hackers, hobbyists, artists, and entrepreneurs; classroom space for workshops and educational programming; and exhibit space for art.

And I had a great idea—several months off the pace, but a great idea nonetheless. Why not add a wet-lab to the mix, to encourage amateur biologists? I knew that the iGEM program (see "Brick by Brick") engages dozens of teams of students from around the world in synthetic biology manipulations, so it didn't seem like too much of a stretch to suggest experimentation beyond the professional lab. The proposal was a simple one: set up a small, commercial molecular and cell biology lab space where individuals and groups could share equipment and reagents and perform sensible experiments in a safe, controlled, environment. Perhaps even I could have a few experiments on the go!

A little digging, even in December, would have revealed that the process was already in full swing. A movement called DIYBio (www.diybio.org) is spreading across the country (see "Standardize What?"), with groups in Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego meeting on a regular basis. Join them at http://groups.google.com/group/diybio.

While it's not without its problems, most obviously safety concerns, I fully support the development of amateur wet labs.

Why? It's the best chance of making biology cool and enjoyable, particularly to youngsters. Other innovative projects such as the UK government's "Science: So What? - So Everything" website (sciencesowhat.direct.gov.uk) are worthwhile, but dull by comparison. DIYBio, a dynamic peer-driven movement, will energize and engage young people.

DIYBio may be the first step to what Freeman Dyson has called "the domestication of biotechnology."1 He wrote: "Every orchid or rose … is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. …Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures…"

Like all first steps it's pretty tentative. The DIYBio group in Boston, for instance, has instituted a voluntary moratorium on manipulation of organisms, confining itself for the time being to sequencing. Also, as one of them points out, "The hype of synthetic biology and 'garage hacking genetics' is greatly exaggerated. In truth, it does require nearly a graduate degree PLUS a scientific-quality-level research laboratory in order to actually get anything to work. And even in that case where individuals are so equipped, getting anything to grow, let alone perform and/or activate the 'newly designed' biological function, is a very rare feat indeed."

But it will get easier. Small, simple, cheap tools and kits will become available, and new model organisms such as Halobacterium, described in the feature "All Systems Go", will provide plenty of opportunity. Amateur biologists will gradually grow in stature, leverage certain advantages over their professional counterparts. They will be able to pursue more speculative projects over a longer period of time without the need for a either financial return or peer-reviewed publication. But they'll gain their share of both as they tackle their interests and the world's needs.

Amateur biologists, biohackers, biopunks—whatever you want to call them—will be a force. One we should welcome.

References

1. F. Dyson, "Our Biotech Future," New York Review of Books, 54(12), July 19, 2007.
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Comments

Avatar of: Gary Huber

Gary Huber

Posts: 23

March 3, 2009

Years ago, many a kid got into science through chemistry sets. Unfortunately, the chemistry sets nowadays are extremely watered down from what was available 40 years ago. I think that we've turned into a nation of scared wimps as far as our children are concerned. If amateur science is to flourish, we need to bring back better chemistry sets!
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

March 3, 2009

I tend to think this is going to be like silicon chip design. Electronics geeks thought that with the advent of FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) that amateurs would finally appear like they have in the software field. A very few have, although there may be more in time as design tools become available. SystemC was an effort in that direction. Meanwhile, those few who have appeared get snapped up by industry. \n\nI think it is not just a difficulty with knowledge, although there is some of that. And it isn't just a difficulty with lab supplies, although that's an issue too. I think it is also a problem of tools that we are just starting to work on like the predictive Halobacterium system. \n\nMost people use VectorNTI for design. If tools were better integrated so that design was even easier, that would help amateurs. It would help grad students too. Most of us are really amateurs in our chosen fields, because nobody spends enough time at it and methods and tools change. \n\nUnlike electronics, though, bio-engineering has legal and regulatory issues because of the potential for causing mass death. I wish it wasn't so. I really wish it wasnt. \n\nSo maybe amateur bio-hacking will have to go forward through service bureaus. I could see amateurs registering and using software to make designs, and ordering those designs from service bureaus that would examine them for problems. That could work. Companies like Blue Heron are a step in that direction, as are a number of plant gene insertion companies that specialize in A. tumefaciens transformations. Maybe we should concentrate on that model instead of total DIY.
Avatar of: Keith Loritz

Keith Loritz

Posts: 16

March 4, 2009

This all sounds great in an ethical and proper world. However, it scares the fungus off me to think about all the bullies, crooks, thieves, con-artists, etc. who might be able to turn this excitement into weapons for their own purposes. It is far easier than you make it out to be.\n
Avatar of: JOHN DUNNE

JOHN DUNNE

Posts: 6

March 4, 2009

I enjoyed your thoughts about DIYbio, somewhat disturbing to the uninitiated I suspect, and I would share a note of angst regarding what mean or desperate people could do, but I applaud your enthusiasm. \n\nI have a similar dream of a future cottage industry of bioinformaticians. I have a passion for untapped information associated with flow cytometry data taken in increasingly standardized multi-site clinical trials, especially in vaccine trials. It's a slow moving train, but the value of such data is clear to me so my hopes are evergreen. Among the challenges for really broad pattern recognition is the annotation of patient information; do smokers have recognizable suppression of immune responses, do autoimmune patients have holes or spikes in their repertoire, etc? \nWith the new enthusiasm for an Electronic Medical Record, and with a small but pretty powerful group of informaticians growing out of the Pacific Northwest(www.FICCS.org), I can imagine smart people from Bangalore to Botswana, pouring over public databases, discovering important biomarkers, patenting them, getting rich selling the rights to big first world pharma/diagnostics companies. \nThat'd be cool huh?

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