Long before we called science “Science” or realized that invention meant big business, a self-determined group of tinkerers experimented with the world around them in weird and wonderful ways. They toiled away in their kitchens, studios and streets, giving rise to the first artisan labs. Some of these people were alchemists: a group of proto-scientists who were active from the Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Their work reflected philosophy and magic more than any empirical science of today, but some of their experimental approaches influenced the rise of modern chemistry and medicine. They didn’t have institutional affiliations, research posts, funding schemes or standardized equipment; what they did have were each other to amuse with their nascent ideas and half-functioning prototypes. Arguably, their workplaces were the first DIY labs – a practice that has since reappeared in modern culture.
In the centuries between then and now, modern science was established, and eventually grew to support a culture of restriction, regulation, and governance. Early homemade labs slowly evolved into specialized spaces, housing dangerous materials that needed to be handled with caution by experts. A separation grew between the lab and popular society, and it soon developed a reputation as a no-go zone for the average citizen. Institutional policies sprouted up, limiting access and protecting the public from the lab’s potential harm.
Fast-forward to 2008 and we see this tightly-controlled tapestry coming apart once again, when an international community called DIYbio sprouted up from a Boston-based website. It takes form as an email list and discussion forum that connects people across the globe who wish to reclaim science (and biology in particular) as a personal hobby free of institutional restraints or technical expertise.
There are several names that describe these resurgent scientific tinkerers who meddle with biology: biohackers, biopunks, citizen scientists and diybiologists, among others. They all share a general mission: to democratize the knowledge and tools needed to work with the life sciences. They focus on open access biotechnology within a current climate of biotechnological revolution: where genomes, microbiomes and all the “omes” in between are increasingly valuable to businesses and governments for big data tracking and health innovation.
In 2010, the self-described biopunk and speculative fiction author Meredith Patterson wrote and delivered A Biopunk Manifesto at a UCLA symposium titled “”Outlaw Biology? Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio.” It read:
“We assert that the right of freedom of inquiry, to do research and pursue understanding under one’s own direction, is as fundamental a right as that of free speech or freedom of religion… We the biopunks are dedicated to putting the tools of scientific investigation into the hands of anyone who wants them.”
These sorts of claims have received strong criticism both before and since the manifesto was written. One year earlier, Nature Biotechnology journal published an article called “Biotech in the basement”, which included an interview with Jim Collins, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University. Collins said he believed that the movement is generally a bad idea and not appropriately regulated. “At best, they will make a mess; at worst, they will get sick or make someone sick,” he said.
Despite opposition, there are some institutionally legit scientists who have tempered their protests when they realize the true goals of DIY biologists. I spoke with Matthew Bennett, professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Rice University during a synthetic biology conference in Ireland where some members of the biohacking community presented their work.
“In a very real sense, the techniques that the biohacker community uses to perform synthetic biology are antiquated compared to those used by academic researchers and large companies,” he said. “But I had the mistaken idea that the goals of biohackers were similar to those of academics and big industry. They don’t necessarily set their sights on the most cutting-edge breakthroughs or large-scale projects. Biohackers tend to focus on more tangible goals that are achievable with limited resources. The creativity of the community to imagine new uses for synthetic biology is extraordinary.”
Since it was branded as an indie science movement in 2008, DIYbio has taken many forms and travelled many continents, but the bedrock from which the movement formed is primarily political. Some DIYbio groups have even started their own community labs, carving space for amateur enthusiasts to meet, learn and do their own experiments, often paid for out of pocket.
Welcome to La Pallaise
Take La Paillasse, for example. This DIY biology lab – whose name means “lab bench” in French – was founded in 2009 in a squat in the outskirts of Paris. Thomas Landrain, a 20-something mop-haired PhD student in synthetic biology, worked to grow the squat into a meeting place for workshops, lectures, and experimentation. It attracted a curious community who met regularly within the dilapidated and graffiti-covered walls to ponder a future for the biotechnology they wanted to see. It has since moved to a more sophisticated lab space in central Paris and even opened a chapter in the Philippines.
One of the projects that came out of the squat has a surprisingly artistic function: the concept of bio-ink. There is a dark blue pigment-producing bacteria found in South American soils, brought to Landrain’s attention by a industrial designer. He began researching the bacteria, thinking about possible uses. Specifically, the lab discussed the design of a bioreactor pen that pigment-producing bacteria would live in and secrete its pigment through, like ink. The idea was that instead of replacing the ink cartridge in the pen when it ran out, you would simply feed the pen nutrients that would nourish the bacteria inside, allowing them to produce more dark blue inky pigment.
While Landrain’s lab is still pondering the pen’s engineering, they’ve developed a kit so that anyone can grow these bacteria in their own home to harvest bio-ink. This is an ingenious form of creation unique to DIY biologists. The organism does the work but the DIY’er is the one applying it.
Similarly, some Californian citizen scientists working out of the BioCurious community lab are collaborating on their own device to work with – and print – living organisms. They’ve taken inspiration from large bio companies like Organovo, who are developing ways to 3D-print human organs and tissues. The BioCurious scientists are attempting to create their own cheaper version of these printers using old CD drives, an inkjet cartridge and an Arduino microcontroller. They meet every week to work on it and report their progress, and have also published instructions on how to make one’s own, which you can read online at www.instructables.com/id/DIY-BioPrinter.
The BioGaragen Gene Gun
(Photo from the Medical Musei on Flickr, Creative Commons public license)
In 2012, a member of the Danish community biolab BiologiGaragen named Rüdiger Trojok created a DIY gene gun made from wood and a bicycle pump. Gene guns are regularly used in biotech labs as a way to introduce DNA into a cell. They literally fire tiny gold pellets that are covered with DNA at a cell with the hope of getting that DNA inside the cell’s nucleus for genetic engineering pursuits. The first prototype of the DIY gene gun didn’t work so well, but it is apparently functioning well upon its second design.
There is something artistic and vital about the creative spirit of the burgeoning biopunk. One can draw comparisons, for example, between La Paillaise’s early squat site and the artist communities of the 1930s in the Montparnasse area of Paris, where broke artist squatted in low-rent communities and enjoyed ultimate creative freedom. In a similar fashion, through the lack of traditional structure and rules, the DIY biolabs – particularly those in their earliest stages – are able to push the boundaries of living and recycled materials to create, innovate and inspire.
Denisa Kera is an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore who has been travelling all over Asia, Europe and North America chronicling the DIY biology movement for the last few years. I met Denisa at Toronto’s Action Potential lab, which fuses art and science through youth education and adult workshops and sometimes hosts the Toronto DIYbio group meet ups. (Check out their instructable on extracting strawberry DNA on page TK.) I asked her what she has learned from her time observing various global DIY bio groups.
“Moving to open and citizen science projects, for me, means a new relationship between laboratory research and practice – where the division between the laboratory, parliament and society will be more diffused, more complex,” Kera said. “It can go terribly wrong, of course, if we don’t make that process transparent and we don’t empower as many people as possible to take part in this.”
This empowerment has bolstered a fledgling global movement and allowed many indie labs to open up shop, but it has also garnered the attention of law enforcing agencies who worry that the right technology might get into the wrong hands and wreak accidental havoc or even purposeful bioterrorism. This is particularly visible in the US, where the FBI has hosted several meetings with DIYbio groups to monitor their activities – but not necessarily force restriction. According to a 2010 article in Nature journal, the FBI have adopted “what some call a ‘neighbourhood watch’ stance.” That means that they work in tandem with the biohackers, who they encourage to monitor their own community and report any suspicious behaviour.
Kera believes their purpose goes much further than that though, and says that the FBI serve their own interests by “creating a market for biosecurity and serving the interests of the big biotech businesses by regulating and controlling the movement.”
The pursuits of DIYbiologists around the globe are vast and diverse. Each community is affected differently by the local sociocultural, environmental and political realities of their place. For example, European labs require a license if they are to do genetic engineering experiments, whereas North American labs don’t face the same laws. In North America DIYbiology has often overlapped with budding entrepreneurial ideas about how to do science differently and even produce businesses with an open science ethic, and while that exists too in Europe and Asia, they have had a larger focus on creating useful tools for the developing world, such as environmental toxin-monitoring systems. Truly, the possibilities for growth, adaptation and mutation are endless.
The DIYbio movement is a moving target, impossible to capture in any singular portrait, but in each of its stripes it reminds us of the early days when science was a creative hobby that belonged to all of us. It’s one of the more obvious places where we can see science as a philosophy, and if the conditions are set just right, we can create our very own kind of magic.