All back to my lab
BIOHACKING:The rise of DIYbio, or ‘biohacking’, is allowing amateur scientists to perform biotech experiments with DNA and bacteria at home, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL
FANCY GROWING some glow-in-the-dark bacteria? Or isolating DNA using everyday materials? How about making your own lab equipment?
Welcome to the world of “biohacking”, a movement that makes biological experiments accessible, bringing them into homes and communities.
Cathal Garvey, a Cork-based biohacker, describes the international DIYbio movement as being somewhat like the revolution that saw the birth of home computers.
“Computers used to exist in white-room labs and anyone who wanted to interact with this mainframe computer, which was imagined to be far too complex to take out of a lab, had to wear a lab coat, gloves and sometimes a breathing mask,” he says. “Then this garage revolution just turned it on its head – everyone had a computer, had that power, and now the internet is effectively dissolving every layer of society and building it from the ground up.
“Ultimately, computers are made of sand, and if we can do that much with sand and we are now starting to do the same thing with the bounty of nature, the implications are hard to predict, but they can’t be small.”
Spaces for biohacking – literally, hacking solutions together in biology – are springing up in the US and Europe, says Garvey. He describes how people can get into relatively simple experiments such as inserting DNA into bacteria in a way that makes colonies fluoresce bright green under a blue light.
“In America, it’s now routine to get people into a community lab and teach people how to handle bacteria, and you get them to make fluorescent bacteria right there.”
As a former research scientist I admit a little bemusement that people would go to the trouble and expense of setting up biotech labs at home, but Garvey has heard it before. “Academic science is tremendously wasteful in terms of money and time and effort – a lot of things are done because that is how they are done, not because that is the best way of doing things any more, so there are a lot of outdated techniques,” he says. “This is why, when you come out to an academic scientist that you are going to do biotech at home, they are even more incredulous than the average person, because to them it is something that costs enormous amounts of money.”
Garvey, who has a degree in genetics, became interested in DIYbio while he was doing postgraduate research on cancer, but he believes it’s by no means exclusive to those with a background in science.
“If you assemble a good conceptual toolkit and you provide the right DNA and the right strains, anyone can do this without training,” he says.
He has already delved in by isolating bioluminescent bacteria from squid, by working out how to insert DNA into bacteria using agents you can buy in a pharmacy, and even by making his own centrifuge.
“I had a 3D printer,” says Garvey. “So I printed a centrifuge rotor to fit on to a Dremel, a multi-tool used to polish things. I use it every day in the lab.”
Garvey’s lab is in a spare room and he has invested around €5,000 in it, though he reckons in hindsight it’s possible to kit out a home lab for microbiology and synthetic biology for less. “People spend more on golf,” he quips. And he sees the commercial potential in selling “hacks” that others can then use. “I’m confident that I will easily make back the money that I have put into this and I am working at making it a full-time career.”
Garvey explains that he had to get a licence from the Environmental Protection Agency, and now that he has gone through the process he is happy to talk to others about the process. That ethos of sharing information is a core feature of DIYbio, he explains.
“It wouldn’t be happening without collaboration and sharing. There’s an expectation that work is released under open-source licensing, and people come back to report on their experiments and share their results. It’s a very close-knit community and I am hoping that the open-source mindset doesn’t get corrupted along the way.”
One concern that springs to mind is the abuse of biological experiments by terrorists or others intent on harm. But Garvey notes that being open with information rather than shutting it down – as in the case of scientific journals being urged not to publish details of a potentially highly dangerous strain of avian flu – can help professional and citizen scientists to prepare for potential biological disasters such as pandemics or biowarfare.
“When it comes down to human nature, if you give people opportunities and the ability to be creative, they will almost certainly create rather than destroy,” he says. “People who are drawn to challenge are drawn to create. Some people are evil but they are the minority and it’s easy to forget that.”