By: Gareth Branwyn
You’re likely already familiar with the idea of the hackerspace, local do-it-yourself (and do-it-with-others) “clubs” that have sprung up in many places around the world. But did you know that there are such spaces exclusively dedicated to citizen science and biotechnology hacking? We thought it would be fun to look at a few of these exciting citizen science labs and some of the more promising projects that they’re incubating.
BioCurious (biocurious.org) — One of the first such biology-focused hackerspaces is Sunnyvale California’s BioCurious. One of the first big projects developed by founding members of the space was the successfully crowdfunded OpenPCR printer. This $649 tabletop thermocycler, sold as a kit that you build, allows you sequence your own DNA, diagnose diseases, look for environmental contaminants, and other DNA-probing applications. PCR stands for “polymerase chain reaction” and is a method for copying strands of DNA. Like the MakerBot 3D printer, this product is an inspiring example of what can be done to advance science and technology when citizens pool their efforts. Recent projects at BioCurious have included development of a DIY bioprinter http://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-BioPrinter/
(for 3D printing structures using living cells) and bioengineering plants that glow in the dark (see “The Glowing Plant” below).
DIYbio (diybio.org) – Another venerable biohacking organization, DIYbio is actually a loose-knit network of biospaces and individuals from around the world who are experimenting with open source biotechnology. (Many of the groups in this piece are listed on diyBio’s directory page [Link: diybio.org/local/] of local groups.) A number of DIYbio groups function as a subset of conventional hackerspaces, meeting at places like NYC Resistor in NY and Noisebridge in San Francisco. The group’s website doesn’t focus so much on biohack projects so much as the meta-concerns of the DIY bio community, such as safety issues, a calendar of events, a biohacking code of ethics, and the aforementioned directory of biohacking spaces.
Baltimore Underground Science Space (Bugss) (bugssonline.org) – Bugss bills itself as a place for “creative biology.” Like many biohacking spaces, they see themselves as a serious lab for research and development by citizen scientists. And, also as with many of the other spaces here, they are dedicated to exploring the intersection of art and science in the pursuit of biotechnology. One of their more intriguing projects is a biosensor that can sense lead. A team at Brown University had attempted and failed to create such a biosensor, so Bugss members stepped in to take up the challenge.
Indysci/Project Marilyn (www.indysci.org) — IndySci is not really a hackerspace, but rather, an independent research organization focused on the development of open source pharmaceuticals. Like Buggs’ picking up on Brown’s abandoned research, Indysci’s first project, Project Marilyn, continues research first undertaken at University of Maryland. Researchers there discovered a promising anti-cancer compound called “9DS,” but the research was halted when the lead scientist left. So, Isaac Yonemoto and the team at Indysci picked it up again and are crowdfunding the next phase of the work. Early applications of the drug showed it to be competitive with leading cancer drugs, with less side effects. And, because it is open source, it will mean more availability at far lower cost.
Bio, Tech, and Beyond (biotechnbeyond.com) — Carlsbad, California’s Bio, Tech, and Beyond (something of a spin-off of BioCurious) is one of the few biohackerspaces that was established by the host city itself. The city of Carlsbad’s goal, in creating the space, is to provide an incubator for biotech innovators and entrepreneurs in the area and to serve as a hub for public STEM education. BTNB’s facility is a certified BioSafety Level One lab. Members can engage in such activities as developing disease biomarkers in cell cultures, cloning new genes, and developing new diagnostic markers. But, at $600/month, membership does not come cheap. This really is a biotech business incubator more than your typical hackerspace.
Genspace (genspace.org) — PCR and pizza night, anyone? Brooklyn’s “community biolab,” Genspace, holds such an event, along with a Biohacking Bootcamp where you can learn such things as how to reprogram bacteria to fluoresce, how to hack your own genome, and the basics of DIY lab experimentation. One of the more interesting projects to come out of Genspace is OpenTrons (opentrons.com), an open source rapid prototyping printer for biological experimentation. With this technology, future citizen scientists won’t work out their experiment protocols on paper and then spends ours in a lab doing the lab testing their ideas. They’ll spec out the experiment in a web browser and then send those instructions to an OpenTrons printer and the printer will carry it out.
Real Vegan Cheese (realvegancheese.org) – If you’re lactose intolerant or a vegan but you want some cheese on that Genspace PCR-night pizza, the Real Vegan Cheese project has got you covered. A collaboration between members of BioCurious and Oakland’s Counter Culture Labs (counterculturelabs.org), the group raised over $39,000 last year on Indiegogo to fund the development of their animal-free cheese. The idea is to synthesize yeast DNA from animal milk protein, put that DNA into Brewer’s yeast, collect the milk proteins from that, and use it to create vegan milk. From there, this “milk” can be processed into cheese using the conventional method.
Open Wetlab (waag.org/en/lab/open-wetlab) – Biohacking spaces are not limited to the US, they can be found throughout the world. Open Wetlab is a project within the Waag Society, a Dutch institute dedicated to the creative and public-facing exploration of art, science, and technology. Open Wetlab brings the institute’s brief to the world of biotechnology. One of the group’s projects is trying to biohack the protein- and vitamin-rich (and very disgusting tasting) spirulina algae to make it more palatable. The group also runs a BioHack Academy, to teach attendees how to set up their own home wetlab, and has a project hoping to create an ethical framework for artists and other who want to incorporate biotechnology into their work.
The Glowing Plant (glowingplant.com) – The Glowing Plant project is a collaboration between two members of Biocurious, Antony Evans and Kyle Taylor, and Omri Amirav-Drory, founder of Genome Compiler (genomecompiler.com). The goal of the project is to create a reliable bioluminescent plant that can be used as a sustainable, organic light source. Last summer, the group Kickstarted the project and raised nearly half a million dollars. They are now also taking pre-orders on your very own glow-in-the-dark plant life. As you can imagine, the idea of releasing a bio-engineered plantform into “the wild” has caused some controversy.
It is perhaps understandable that, when you bring up citizen biohacking to a general audience, you immediately get a fear reaction. “Isn’t that unsafe?” “What about terrorists using such a lab to create a bioweapon?” “Is that even legal?” You get the idea. The truth of the matter is that these groups, most of them run by professional scientists, are sticklers for safety and the ethical use of the technologies they’re using and the new technologies they’re innovating. Which isn’t to say there aren’t real dangers here and that these groups don’t need to be mindful of the public’s concern and the real and potentially serious public safety issues around amateur biotech.
The kerfuffle over the glowing plants being a prime example. At the moment, there are an estimated fifty such biohacking spaces throughout the world, mainly in Europe and the United States. There are also more conventional hackerspaces that include some level of biotech/wetlab/citizen science activities within their programming. When you look at what’s been accomplished already, in just a few years of these groups being in existence, it truly exciting to think where this community of amateur scientists and entrepreneurs will take this tech in the future.
The hackerspace-borne MakerBot created an entire new product category and transformed the idea of bottom-up, maker-based technological innovation. Given the bootstrapping powers of crowdfunding and increasing powerful and plentiful development tools like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and 3D printing, one can only imagine how many MakerBot-like game changers will flower in the fields of biotechnology over the coming decade.
Editor’s Note: DIYSECT is running a multipart series on citizen biohacking. You can watch the first episode here: vimeo.com/103021116
Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor for Boing Boing and WINK Books. His latest book, Borg Like Me, a best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” is available from sparksoffirepress.com.