Make Your Own Organisms: The rise of DIY Bio
Information technology waited for no one in its atomic explosion over the world. Almost every person today interacts with, and uses technology conveniently to such an extent that the word “technology” itself is synonymous with IT. Now it’s time for a new revolution. Biotechnology and synthetic biology are bringing the creation of novel organisms close to home in the same way that IT brought computing into the hands of 5-year-olds.
Do-it-yourself biology obviously has far more technical and physical constraints than DIY computer programming or even mechanical engineering, but who cares? Definitely not those who care about biotech. Imagine a world in which you have a handheld DNA sequencing device that could tell you the sequence of bacterial, viral or human DNA present on your mobile phone, for instance. Well, no need to use your imagine too much, it already exists!
The DIY movement in biology has gained momentum in a number of ways. For one, the traditional lab set-ups in universities and corporations does not allow for creativity, idea sharing or tinkering. To innovate in such settings is close to impossible, making more and more biologists restless to have some open-access resources where they can happily fiddle with cells and organisms.
Although lab equipment could be prohibitively expensive, some determined souls managed to begin by begging, borrowing and building their own lab equipment. Most of the active labs are based in the United States, but Canada, Europe and Australia have their fair share of Bio-hacking labs (as they are fondly referred to). The aim of these labs is to make biotech and genetic engineering accessible to a wider audience, without barriers. Most of them follow a membership model, where access to the lab comes at a monthly or yearly fee. They often run workshops for those looking to learn and simultaneously run community projects that anyone can partake in.
Here are a few of the prominent DIYbio labs with examples of projects that they conduct:
Genspace, Brooklyn, NY, United States: Genspace conducts a wide variety of classes, introducing biologists and non-biologists to the novel areas and applications of biotech with hands on approaches. Their current community projects include “Mycoremediation” – the use of local mushroom species in degrading organic pollutants and “optogenetics” – designing light-sensitive genetic circuits.
Counter Culture Labs, Oakland, CA, United States: A sister lab to Biocurious, this lab has successfully run and crowdfunded an initiative called “Open Insulin” which raised over $16,000 toward the development of an open source method to develop insulin more economically. They also run a weekly project in developing vegan cheese.
Hackuarium, Renens, Switzerland: By developing a method to detect DNA damage, Action for Genomic Integrity through Research (AGIR), is a project that hopes to make this process easy at the individual level.
BioFoundry, New South Wales, Australia: One of the first bio-hackspaces down under, this community is working on several commercially significant projects from synthetic beef and palm oil to E. coli-produced insulin.
In addition to the spaces that host experimental biotech, there are those that have built compact versions of bulky lab equipment to make the DIY experience simpler and more accessible to everyone. Bento Lab, Amino labs and Biorealize have all miniaturized the bulky equipments required in a standard molecular biology lab and are allowing for multiple steps to be conducted more seamlessly. Still other technologies like the MinION (the device you were asked to “imagine” earlier) are revolutionising DNA and RNA sequencing by putting the power of sequencing in the palm of scientists’ hands, literally.
The DIY bio movement is essential in creating a critical level of biotech literacy and encouraging collaboration across disciplines and borders. The open-source synthetic biology competition iGEM has encouraged this further. The biotech buzz is spreading in the right ways with a new open-source culture diminishing the monopolies and oligopolies of institutions and corporations. If you haven’t understood the implications of what I’m talking about, go join a DYI bio community now!