Thermal cyclers, centrifuges, incubators, pipette tips and Eppendorf tubes - biological research has long been an expensive exercise under the exclusive purview of research institutions with vast budgets and swathes of graduate students. However, a growing social movement is trying to change this attitude, putting the biological sciences back in reach of the public by focussing on the development of affordable research technology.
DIY biotech or ‘biohacking’ is not an entirely new idea, with some early accounts available as far back as 1988. Many have also drawn parallels to the explosive growth of personal computing from an esoteric garage hobby to something that has completely disrupted the way we gather information and solve problems. Those at the front of the movement, such as Ellen Jorgensen, aspire to challenge the idea that working in biotechnology is limited to those with an advanced degree, believing that the best way to advance the field is to put its future in the hands of those closest to its potential impacts. To this end, community groups and maker spaces gradually opened around the globe, starting in Brooklyn, NY and more recently as far away (or close to home for this author) as Sydney, Australia.
Some of the movement’s critics have argued that the resource intensive nature of biological research will ultimately limit the kinds of advances that can be achieved in such community spaces. This is a valid statement, as there is much highly specialised equipment which is sadly out of budget for most citizen scientists. However to counter this obstacle, there have been many instances of ingenious mimicry of techniques commonly found in a professional laboratory for a fraction of the cost, such as this rudimentary centrifuge or this basic microvolume spectrophotometer. Several biohackers have also volunteered their time and resources towards the field of bioinformatics using languages like BioPerl and BioPython, something achievable in theory by anyone with enough computing power. Despite limited financial resources, there is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm with projects currently devoted to the production of generic insulin and synthetic palm oil to name a few.
As with any new technology, there have of course been questions raised around the ethics and responsible conduct of those who engage in DIY biotech. Some are calling for increased regulation around the practice, with others going still further and suggesting that DIY biotech is a potential vector for bioterrorism. While universal regulation is likely to be impractical, there have already been successful efforts by the DIY bio community to establish an agreed upon code of ethics, with stipulations such as the prohibition of any work with viable pathogens. As for bioterrorism concerns, the bare bones nature of backyard biology makes it very unlikely that one will be able to create a sophisticated biological weapon.
All this being said, it is certainly an exciting time to be involved in a movement like DIY biotech which, if nothing else, fosters a public interest in scientific endeavour which ultimately affects the public.
About the Author
Hugh Allison is a chemical engineer who has been fascinated by the applications of biotechnology since he went on exchange to UC Berkeley three years ago. He currently writes for GBR as their online commmunity manager, and works full time for an Australian veterinary pharmaceutical company.