Credentialism be damned! Unabashed amateurs, boundary jumpers and innovators without invitation are brushing aside (or simply ignoring!) the gatekeepers of the biology establishment—and building their own Life-Sci hacking labs. Hey, if the Digi-Tinkerers, iHobbyists and Electro-Makers can command their own hardware-centric places/spaces—and plan to disrupt the planet’s manufactories—then the DIY/DIT (Do-It-Together) “wetware” crowd are self-licensing to be just as ambitious.
Would-be grassroots synthetic-biologists are now empowered by the same Three Disruptors—(1) Personal Computer, (2) Internet and (3) Social Media—as hardware makers. Moore’s Law multipliers—times these three disruptors—are also enabling the democratization of biology (and, I think, ultimately healthcare) via the DIY BioLab.
Bio-Hackers—going forward—are likely to make more intense use of 3DP-driven BioPrinters than digi-hardware maker/users do with traditional-material 3D printers. (According to Maker Media Inc. executives in July, one-third of their worldwide Maker Faire franchise—135+ branded events in 2014—is now driven by 3D printing. And, that percentage will only grow larger year over year.)
As I’ve opined before in this space, 3DP is the Fourth Disruptor. And, the only one of the four disruptors that transforms digits into atoms: Thoughts Into Things.
In the 3 October 14 SciFri (Science Friday) Public Radio International (PRI) program, Ira Flatow—award-winning host—moderated a show-discussion entitled “Community Labs Practice DIY Biology.” (For me, SciFri podcasts via iPhone end up helping to empower my time-shifted life.) Human biology is the substrate for human healthcare. And—as so many would-be patients now consult with “Dr. Google” first—a lot of us are already susceptible to a grassroots-level beginning to the new kind of healthcare experience for which we all crave. DIY Biology sounded like another way to take charge of one of life’s most intimate problems: personal health in an impersonal world— perhaps supported by cellular-level understanding of some of biology’s basics.
(You know I try to follow anything that smacks of present or prospective 3DP usage—especially in the healthcare field or its associated disciplines. And, I’m a devotee of DIY/DIT engines. Still, I was surprised by this “sudden” DIY BioLab exfoliation. Ira is not generally in the breaking-news business. So, I wonder what’s been going on—under my radar—in the Citizen BioScientist world? AND, how I’d managed to miss it!)
Here’s how SciFri’s Flatow prefaced the segment on his Web-site’s textual iteration: “At community labs like Brooklyn’s Genspace, the Bay Area’s BioCurious [in Sunnyvale], and Baltimore’s BUGSS, members play around with PCR machines [polymerase chain reaction to amplify segments of DNA via thermal cycling] and bioprinters, extract their own DNA, and make bacteria glow in the dark.” The BioLab monikers alone promise high excitement and techie/hipster verve.
As it turns out, Brooklyn’s own Genspace (“New York City’s Community Biolab”) was the first—in 2009—of the DIY BioLabs to get off the ground nationwide. (Talk about under my very nose…)
To present a flavor for such a pioneering organization’s community-oriented sensibilities, here’s Genspace’s ambitious Mission Statement:
Genspace is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology. Since 2009 we have served the greater New York area by providing educational outreach, cultural events, and a platform for science innovation at the grassroots level.
In December 2010 we opened the first-ever community biotechnology laboratory, a Biosafety Level One facility in Brooklyn, New York, where we offer hands-on courses to the public, provide extracurricular experiences for students, and encourage scientific entrepreneurship, particularly in the fields of molecular and synthetic biology. As a community-based lab, we offer members the unique opportunity to work on their own projects and experience the joy and wonder of science firsthand.
As long ago as 2008—even before any lab actually opened its doors—the DIY BioLab community began to coalesce and organize. One of the first aggregating and education tools of the movement that year was DIYbio.org. For more on this clearinghouse, here’s their own online profile and associated links:
An Institution for the Do-It-Yourself Biologist
DIYbio.org was founded in 2008 with the mission of establishing a vibrant, productive and safe community of DIY biologists. Central to our mission is the belief that biotechnology and greater public understanding about it has the potential to benefit everyone.
On 2 October, Ira showcased his two guests to help illuminate the grassroots BioLabs Movement. (Hey, if the Maker people can have a “Maker Movement”… BUT what the BioLabs Movement needs is an organization like Maker Media Inc. That is an enabler that can act as the community’s aggregator, media house, think tank, resource store, sales channel and event producer.) These two BioLabs insiders were:
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory;
Leader, Bioprinter Project at BioCurious (Sunnyvale, CA);
Co-Founder of new Counter Culture Labs, Oakland, CA.
Senior Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program
Woodrow Wilson Centre
According to Flatow guest Todd Kuiken this DIY/DIT BioLab phenom has already led to the establishment of eight to ten such grassroots laboratories—mostly in big cities on the coasts.
People who come to play in nascent BioLab spaces often have no background at all in biology. Still, they are typically professionals in there own fields—often with a personal science-sector history and mindset. This may even include business chops to advance possible DIY BioLab proceeds to commercial and/or common-good status.
Serious Bio-Hacker interests demonstrated at BioLabs can stretch from fermentation for food entrepreneurship (real vegan cheese) to “ghost” organs (populating organ bio-structures with patient-specific stem cells) to life-disease research (toxicity of new drugs).
Would-be Bio-Hackers often find second-hand equipment on Craig’s List for cheap. Other sources of biotech-gear include corporate donations of superseded—but still viable—tech equipment. And, as usual, hackers and makers of all persuasions are expert at repurposing components and systems for “off label” uses. Think—in one SciFri guest example—CD Drive read/write head engines subbing for high-precision stepper motor systems. (Like the ones in the sophisticated Organovo bio printer depicted above.)
In our technology-infused society, Bio-Hackers continue to find that DIY-fostering components, equipment and techniques are accessible and cost-effective.
From my POV, bio printing brings the most excitement to the Life Sci party in the BioLab banquet space. Some 3DP-industry research houses project that in five years HALF of all 3DP business—by dollar volume—will be in the sophisticated use of 3D printing for healthcare.
Bio printing is the use of living cells to 3D-print bio-active tissues. The ultimate healthcare goal is fully functional—and patient-DNA-specific—human organs that can be transplanted successfully longterm without the immense problems of tissue rejection.
SciFri guest Patrik D’haeseleer commented that Bio-Hackers usually stay away—at least for now—from bio printing in their DIY environments for two reasons.
First is the high-maintenance requirements of human cells. They are simply very fragile and would demand constant attention. The second is that bio printing is one of the most commercially contested areas of 3DP at the moment. It’s not an area in which DIYers would seem to be able to contribute much—because of the inherent cost of matching rapidly advancing technology. (I might posit that this latter issue is precisely the reason why the inherent inventive and innovative nature of Bio-Hacking COULD probably add value to the practice of bio printing!)
Exchanging with his guests, Moderator Ira directly addressed one of the public’s major perceived concerns about Bio-Hacking. This is especially prevalent at the sophistication level of rapidly developing bio printing. Are we likely to see a new Dr. Frankenstein 3D- print organs for his additive-manufactured monster? “He’s alive!…but his cerebral-cortex build has slumped…!”
SciFri Flatow remarked, “Usually—when Do-It-Yourself Bio is covered, Todd, in the media—the concern is ‘amateur scientists breeding super-viruses.’” Todd Kuiken presented one antidote to journo sensationalism. He discussed a professional survey done to debunk the more flamboyant headlines that are presented in the “if it breeds, it leads” mode of newspaper salesmanship.
Most of the techniques and experiments Bio-Hackers are doing are relatively safe. Furthermore, the Wilson Center and DIYbio.org started the “Ask Program.” This is a BioLab partnership with members of the American Biological Safety Association. The goal is to give DIY experimenters access to bio safety pros—to enable the relay of questions and answers about experiments. “The [DIY bio] community is being extremely proactive in terms of issues around bio safety and security to assure the work [Bio-Hackers are doing] is safe,” said Todd.
As Ira remarked, the ebola epidemic is on everyone’s minds… This is perhaps the perfect example of contagion unleashed by system failures—compounded by a lack of understanding and appropriate action among stricken populations.
Ira Flatow, SciFri and guest leaders in the world of DIY BioLabs were convincing in their answers to safety questions. All while they were compelling in their presentations of the grassroots virtues growing at the BioLab community level. Citizen BioScientists are out to breed solutions to biology ignorance and irrational fears—for the betterment of our citizenry and our society.