There was a time when only scientists used computers. Now systems that are thousands of times more powerful are available to nearly everyone. Bio-technology could follow the same course. However, if you want to tackle genetic testing, synthetic biology, etc then you’re going to need some serious hardware. Electrophoresis, polymerase chain reactions, fluorescent spectrometry – these are all really basic techniques but they still require specialized machines that can cost thousands of dollars. Luckily, that may be about to change. We’ve seen several projects to make cheap and even open hardware versions of lab devices – helping biotech become more do-it-yourself. While at the Open Source Summit I had the chance to talk with some of the forces behind these projects, as well as with the DIY enthusiasts that hope to one day use them. We may be approaching the age of the personal biology lab but there are some major hurdles still in the way.
It’s been more than a year since we covered DIYbio.org, the online website where many would be bio-tech hobbyists share information. DIYbio is just the most prominent face on a much larger trend – the growing interest among amateurs and citizen scientists to perform modern biology experiments. Whether you want to isolate some genes, engineer new form’s of brewer’s yeast, or track diseases, there may be a place for you in the DIY biology movement.
If you have a lab. Unlike amateur astronomy or amateur programming, amateur bio-technology needs a lot of equipment and supplies. To that end, certain members of the community have worked tirelessly to provide cheap, simple, and hackable versions of lab necessities. Once they become widely available these devices could also have an impact outside amateur science. What works for DIY hobbyists will help high school education, and could be leveraged for third world medicine as well.
We’ve already covered one amateur biology hardware project: the Pearl Gel Box – an open hardware electrophoresis gel box from Pearl Biotech. The plans for that box have been online for months now. You can build your own or purchase it for about $500 (or less than half that as a kit). According to Tito Jakowski (one of the creators of the device) they’ve sold “dozens”.
Jakowski and Josh Perfetto are developing another open hardware lab tool: a polymerase chain reaction thermocycler. A PCR is basically a DNA amplifier – making many copies of segments of DNA for use in the lab. Open PCR is going to cost less than $400, maybe one tenth the price of modern PCRs. It’s built using off the shelf parts (including an Arduino board) and some laser cut pieces for the frame. Jaksowski and Perfetto made it easily hackable so that users can add in their own features or upgrade it as desired. There have been 14 pre-orders so far, and the first kits will be shipped “in a few months.”
Otyp, a group interested in bringing biotech into education, has designed their own open hardware PCR. They’ll be looking to lease this equipment (along with other supplies and education packages) to high schools for about $600 a class with 24 students per class. According to James Peyer (one of the founders of Otyp) these leases will be available starting with the upcoming 2010-2011 school year. Here’s a video that describes Otyp a little more.
PCR may also be able to fit in your pocket. Lava Amp is a handheld PCR device under development by Guido Nunez-Mujica, Joseph Jackson (Open Science Summit organizer) and collaborators brought together by a SciFoo conference. It is due to come out sometime in the first quarter of 2011, and has a target price of $400. While it may find use in DIY biology labs, Lava Amp is aimed towards bringing PCR to hard to reach areas around the world, where it may serve as a valuable lab tool in the efforts to fight disease. Jackson tells me that Nunez-Mujica was at TED Global this week, and that as they secure more interest and funding they will be able to move quickly towards their desired launch date. Here’s Nunez-Mujica presenting the device in a video from February:
So it looks like gel electrophoresis and PCR are going to be available to you on the (relatively) cheap. What’s next? Well, there are already some other neat open hardware projects out there. MudWatt from KeegoTech is a microbial fuel cell – a device that generates low levels of electricity from microbes interacting with soil. The Spiker Box, from Backyard Brains, lets you use a cockroach leg to explore neurophysiology. Here’s a video of that:
According to Mac Cowell from DIYbio.org, there’s a lot of interest in the DIY biology community to continue developing new open versions of lab equipment. These projects have varying amounts of support and we could see spectrofluorometers, microfliuidic systems, and centrifuges in the near term. But there’s another aspect to hardware that might be coming along in the same time period: automation. As was discussed during the DIY biology panel at the Open Science Summit, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts adapting non-bio open hardware into the bio-lab. For example, MakerBot’s 3D printer could be used to handle heated liquids. Essentially, open hardware from the ‘Make Culture’ could be used to bring robots into the DIY bio lab. That may help hobbyist biologists not only perform modern bio experiments, but to do so quickly and without tedium. Cowell himself if working on a webcam microscope that can pan across samples through a mobile phone interface.
I should perform a big reality check here, however, and point out how basic these lab instruments really are. We’ve had the majority of these technologies for decades. Putting them in the hands of DIY biologists isn’t going to turn them into MIT. Also, most of these projects are still in the beginning phase of their development. Selling a few dozen kits isn’t going to reshape an industry. Even if we enable a million amateur biologists with these kinds of lab tools (is that even possible?) there would be a wide range of modern biology that would be outside of their capabilities.
Problems with Wetware and DNA
That’s because hardware is just one part of the modern biology equation. As Mac Cowell and James Peyer both pointed out to me, hardware might be the easiest of the hurdles to clear on the path to bringing biotech to the masses. We know how to build machines, how to strip them down or optimize them to make them cheaper. But labs also need wetware – those reagents and biochemical components that are required to perform experiments. Polymerases, ligases, etc are hard to produce in an amateur environment and have to be bought from companies. This costs a pretty good amount of money, and the wetware is typically consumed during a project. Otyp’s classroom education package costs about $300 even if you have your own hardware – this price covers just the necessary wetware, biological samples and educational materials. And the Otyp lab experiment is extremely basic. As they put it, the lab is the modern biology equivalent of printing “Hello, World!”. The DIY community is going to need to find a way to cover wetware costs or find new means of supplying them if it wants to enjoy long term vitality and growth.
Hardware and wetware, however, might be easy to acquire compared to actual biological samples. Sure, many DIY biology projects probably don’t need anything strange and exciting. You can test your own cells from spit, you can take bacterial samples from the environment, and Cowell told me about a really cool bio-experiment that just requires some squid and a refrigerator (you get glowing tentacles!). But if you really want to do advanced biotech, as some amateur biologists are interested in, you’ll need DNA samples from hard to obtain micro-organisms. The BioBrick standard (and the MIT Registry of Standard Biological Parts) has gone a long way towards making DNA hacking-friendly, but MIT does NOT send those materials out to just anyone. While you may be able to build the hardware and buy the wetware, getting your hands on the most interesting biotechnology materials is going to be difficult if not outright impossible. That’s not going to change in the foreseeable future because it depends more on politics than on science. Many people worry (rightfully so) about biosecurity. What guarantees do we have that a DIY bio-hacker is going to follow all the necessary protocols for handling possibly dangerous substances?
Are Community Labs the Solution?
Well, the guys at DIYbio and many others have been working tirelessly to make sure the DIY community follows stringent guidelines of safety. The Open Science Summit had a big panel discussion about biosecurity. My take away from that panel was this: DIY hobbyists are actually much more interested and dedicated to safety than anyone gives them credit for, but there is still more that regulatory agencies want from them, and the two groups are working together to solve this. No matter what intentions the community has, however, the idea of people performing biotech research on their own (even at a low level and just for fun) doesn’t sit well with many in power. It often doesn’t sit well with me. DIY biologists are generally a responsible bunch, but DIY biology does have the potential to be dangerous.
What can we do about that? Well, we could ask amateur biologists to get together and form their own labs, complete with insurance and documented adherence to safety regulations, just like any professional group. That’s an idea that’s already springing up all around the world. ‘Community labs’, like Biocurious in the San Francisco Bay Area, are working towards providing a space where amateur biologists can get together and pool resources in order to perform safe and interesting science. These community biolabs are probably going to follow the hackerspace model with monthly member fees, group education, and a mixture of private and community wide projects. Here’s a video about Biocurious that was played at the Open Science Summit:
Biocurious is an interesting example of the community lab concept because it has been very successful in some of its efforts but is still working on establishing itself. Tito Jakowski (Open PCR, Pearl Gel Box), Jeff Perfutto (Open PCR) and Joseph Jackson (Lava Amp, Open Science Summit) are all associated with the lab. While BioCurious started in a garage, it is now between homes. The founder, Eri Gentry, is looking to get the group into a real commercial space complete with liability insurance. Gentry and the rest of her crew are a great example of how the DIY community lab is a legit enterprise capable of performing good science. They’re also all very fun people, as you can see in the video above.
If you’re interested in joining the DIY biology global community, finding and joining a local community lab is probably the best way to get involved. They generally provide space, equipment, education, and social interactions that the amateur biologist desperately needs.
These labs, however, need money to form. Biocurious is trying to raise $30,000 to help them secure their new space and equip it. Even if you’re not ready to go join a lab, you can support the DIY community by donating to their cause. In fact, the majority of projects I’ve mentioned above are looking for financial help. Some have links to where you can directly fund them via the web, others you’d have to contact:
These groups continue to work towards bringing the modern biology lab to the masses, but it’s the public interest in biotechnology that really fuels the DIY biology community. As people learn more about the power and promise of new biotech the interest in tinkering with bio projects increases. However, it’s unclear what meaningful change amateur biologists will bring to the world. With simple hardware, basic wetware, and very restricted DNA samples there are limits to what you can do. That’s unlikely to change even if DIY biology becomes very popular and widely practiced. What then, can amateur biologists hope to accomplish?
We have to remember that for decades high school biology education was stuck in the 1960s. Most of us simply have never had the opportunity to isolate DNA, replicate it, play with it in a lab. DIY biology can be education. We also need to remember that people all over the world could benefit from cheaper and wider access to labs to help with epidemiology and healthcare. DIY biology can be humanitarian. Finally, we can’t forget that growing a base of researchers, even just amateurs who tinker, are capable of making some (albeit usually small) meaningful contributions to a field. DIY biology could crowd-source science. For whatever that will be worth. Once we make the hardware, wetware, and DNA widely available, the amateur biology lab could form a valuable supplement to the modern industrial approach to biotechnology.
And one day, when biotechnology really takes off, DIY biology could become a true research partner for industry. When we can engineer cells the way we engineer computers, individuals working at home or in community labs could make their own important advancements. Just like amateur computer programmers do now. If we build the biotechnology, and make the modern biotechnology lab accessible, citizen science will arise. Parts of the lab are already here, more is on its way. Get involved now and things could arrive much faster.
[image credits: Raneko, Keck Graduate Institute]
[video credits: Otyp, Lava Amp, Backyard Brains, Biocurious]
[source: Tito Jakowski, Eri Gentry, Joseph Jackson, Mac Cowell, James Peyer]