We might laugh at the idea of a real scientific breakthrough taking place in some shed in a back garden, but it is a real possibility. There now exists a number of scientific improvisers, or bio-hackers, who are part of a growing movement called DIYbio, short for do-it-yourself biology. These folks want to follow in the steps of people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who built the first Apple computer in Jobs’s garage, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who invented Google in a friend’s garage. Biohackers are attempting bold feats of genetic engineering, drug development, and biotech research in makeshift home laboratories. The movement got its official start in 2008 with DIYBio.org, an online hub for sharing ideas—and the site has grown to more than 2,000 members since its inception. Here is what their website says:
DIYbio.org is an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety. This will require mechanisms for amateurs to increase their knowledge and skills, access to a community of experts, the development of a code of ethics, responsible oversight, and leadership on issues that are unique to doing biology outside of traditional professional settings.
The NYT recently published an article about the movement, it starts out talking about a student who studied Genetics in UCC setting out with a vision in some remote spot in Ireland …
Cathal Garvey’s home laboratory in Cork, Ireland, is filled with makeshift equipment. His incubator for bacteria is an old Styrofoam shipping box with a heating mat and thermometer that he has modified into a thermostat. He uses a pressure cooker to sterilize instead of an autoclave. Some instruments are fashioned from coffee cans.In the burgeoning world of citizen science, where the ethos is closer to scout manual than peer-reviewed journal, Mr. Garvey, a 26-year-old geneticist who worked in a cancer research center for about four years after earning a graduate degree, is something of a hero. He is perhaps best known for inventing the DremelFuge, a small centrifuge that can be fabricated by a 3-D printer. His plans are freely available online, so anybody who has the desire and the resources to make one can do so.He and other scientific improvisers, or bio-hackers, are part of a movement called DIYbio, short for do-it-yourself biology, which got its official start in 2008 with DIYBio.org, an online hub for sharing ideas. The site has grown to more than 2,000 members since its inception.”I want to generate the sort of tools that make it easy to do DIYbio at home,” Mr. Garvey said.
Mr Garvey is not rich, but to do this he does not need to be, because his DIY Bio lab cost him just four thousand euros – about $5,000.
In the same article they go on to talk about Genspace, a small open-source bio lab in New York on the 7th floor of an old bank building where anybody, regardless of scientific background, can turn up. You just pay $100 a month to cover rent and what laboratory people call consumables: chemical agents, disposable tubes and other paraphernalia that need to be replaced regularly. Similar setups are also sprouting in other cities.
Is the Hackspace concept just a US thing? Nope, not at all, here is the link to the London Hackspace. They are also keen to get amateur biology going and so they point anybody who is interested at a complete beginners guide on Wikipedia. They also run a workshop that is both a crash course in molecular biology and also a great overview of what biohackers around the world are getting up to.
Interested? Well here are a few links to get you going in the right direction. What happened to IT is now also happening to Biology, and just as the IT revolution transformed our world, so also will this synthetic biology revolution do the same. We are moving into a world where gene tweaking will become as much a part of everyday technology as texting
- A beginners guide to BioTechnology
- London hackspace
- New York Times Article on Biohacking (published 17th Jan 2012)
- Thingiverse page where Cathal Garvey from Ireland promotes a variety of tools for lab work that might otherwise cost a fortune
- Here is the link to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts – This is a continuously growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems. Founded in 2003 at MIT.
- Here is the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) page … yep, Synthetic Biology using standard parts is now real and in full flight.
- Adventures in Synthetic Biology – A Comic hosted by nature
- A flash game that teaches somethings about cell biology
DIY Bio 4 Beginners has a series of YouTube videos that you might also be interested in. Here Chris Seidel gives an overview of BioHacking in 6 parts, here is part 1
Just in case, here are the links for the other parts …