DIY Biology

When I was growing up, there were two kinds of kids: the ones who wanted to find a gleaming remote control car all set to go under the Christmas tree, and those who hoped to find an erector set to build themselves. And we’ve all seen what it looks like when the latter group—the tinkering tots—grows up. They move from Legos to model airplanes, from erector sets to hand-constructed Harleys. Do-It-Yourself has always been part of the American ethos. It’s in our blood.

But we can only construct if we have the right toys. This has been the major barrier keeping wannabe makers from applying their inquisitive minds to synthetic biology. Three major innovations—the massive public data dump resulting from completing the Human Genome Project in 2003, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and the spread of open-source experimental hardware instructions over the Internet—have changed all this. With the toys, the money, and the knowledge becoming more publicly available every day, a new breed of tinkerer is rising to prominence: the Bio Hacker. Funded by the crowd, running experiments in basements and community labs, these people are fundamentally changing the way biology gets done.

“The idea is that we’re at a point now where the tools to do very simple genetic manipulations are not expensive,” says Andrew Pollock, a Weill Cornell Medical College biologist and a member of New York City’s DIY biology Meetup scene. “You now have the ability to do things informatically, which is doable by individual people.”

This spring, a group of biohackers set out to show just how much small groups of community-backed scientists can accomplish when they started raising money on Kickstarter to genetically engineer fluorescent house plants as a natural substitute for interior lighting. By the end of the campaign, they had surpassed their fundraising target by more than $400,000.

Other groups are now rushing to capitalize on this potential. A new project called YoVivo showed up on Indiegogo this October [http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/yovivo-probiotic-yogurt-advancing-access-to-better-health-for-all]. The team behind it is pitching what they call a “nutraceutical” yogurt, which they intend to produce by genetically modifying probiotic bacteria.

“The product is a yogurt that we’re going to engineer to synthesize resveratrol, which is the molecule in red wine. In the press it’s the ‘long life molecule,’” says Richard Yu, one of the project’s scientists.

Most of the YoVivo team work as professional scientists at a California synthetic biology company called Radiant Genomics. When they saw the enthusiastic public response to the glowing plants campaign, they decided to give the new funding model a try.

But money is only one of the things that they hope to gain by tapping into the community of amateur biologists, says Yu. Just as important is all the feedback they’ve been getting.

One of the things people requested was that the company give its customers the option of performing the genetic manipulations themselves. YoVivo responded by offering a DIY research kit, including plasmids and bacterial cultures, to anyone who puts at least $200 toward the project.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, says Yu. “It’s pushing the envelope in terms of, Can people responsibly deal with this stuff? And I think they can. We just want to make sure we do it right because we don’t want any blowback or setbacks that cause over-reaching regulators to come down hard on us DIY people who want to hack their own yogurt or things like that.”

But biological material is only part of what a scientist needs when undertaking the complex process of genetically modifying bacteria. Incubators and devices that open little pores in bacterial membranes called electroporators are just some of the equipment needed.

Those who really want to go it alone, and who have enough money to do so, will find a wealth of information online about how to build their own sophisticated laboratory equipment. As just one example, solo biologist Cathal Garvey built a centrifuge out of a common rotary tool and a 3-D printed, plastic rack to hold samples in place. Garvey uses the device to run experiments out of his parent’s house in Ireland.

Or there is another alternative for those not interested in building their own equipment.

An exciting recent development in the New York City DIY biology scene was the 2010 opening of GenSpace, a community lab where biology enthusiasts can go to use equipment and run their own experiments.

“It’s like a gym membership. You pay one hundred dollars and you can do whatever you want,” says Pollock.

California has a similar facility called BioCurious that’s stocked with advanced machines and microscopes. It’s here where much of the work happened to begin the YoVivo and glowing plants projects.

GenSpace also welcomes the public to come in and help out on projects like the database the group is creating to catalog genetic identifiers, known as barcodes, of Alaskan tundra animals.

And indeed, collaboration may be at the very heart of this movement. Events like the DNA barcoding one have attracted not only amateurs, but professional scientists who are weary of the cloistered research life and who want to be part of larger, more dynamic projects. In academia, says Pollock, “you pick a project and it takes you seven years to finish this thing. To get out there in a moving ecosystem would be amazing.”

There’s another big reason academics like Pollock are branching out into the DIY biology scene. Increasingly, that’s where careers get made. With government funding being diverted from scientific research, competition has stiffened for coveted grants. It’s a force that has pushed some of the country’s best-trained biologists off the academic track.

Pollock is finishing up a postdoctoral position at a New York City biology lab. But as he considers his future, he’s been noticing that biological entrepreneurship is quickly moving from the ivory tower to the commons. He predicts that if he wants to stick with it he’ll have to follow that shift.

More and more, he says, “that’s where the cutting edge is.”

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