DIY Biotech: Citizen Foresight in Science

DIYBiotech

The do-it-yourself (DIY) biotech movement includes individuals and groups who are engaged in biotechnology outside of traditional academic, government, and industrial laboratories. The Introduction 1 movement has also been described as “garage biology.”

Some participants in DIY biotech are also known as “biohackers.” In the last several years, community biotech laboratories have begun to Introduction to DIY biotech 2 emerge to support and encourage such citizen science. The first of these laboratories was Genspace, located in Brooklyn, New York.

Back in December 2012, leaders and members of Genspace gathered at the lab to consider the future of citizen science and DIY biotech, and the role of Genspace in that future. The workshop was built around an Implications Wheel exercise in which participants identified the primary impacts of the DIY biotech movement, then looked at the secondary impacts of some of those primary impacts, and so forth out to at least three levels of impact.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • The emerging DIY biotech movement (biotechnology done outside traditional academic and industrial labs) has its roots in citizen science and maker culture.
  • Genspace and other community biotech labs seek to promote citizen access to biotechnology through educational programs and by providing affordable, well- equipped laboratory space.
  • In the long term, DIY biotech has the potential to positively impact public awareness of and attitudes toward biotechnology; extend individuals’ control over their environments; disrupt traditional manufacturing, and enable economic development and sustainable lifestyles.

3 PROJECTS TACKLED BY DIY SCIENTISTS

Projects tackled by DIY bioscientists include creating fluorescent yogurt, analyzing their own genomes, developing biofuels, and creating biotech equipment that is more affordable and easy to use. Some pursue more advanced objectives, such as developing advanced assays to quantify proteins in single cells.

There have been projects covering environmental sensing, personal biomonitoring, reimagining laboratory devices, and genetic engineering.18 As of late 2012, projects being pursued at Genspace span a wide breadth of objectives.

  • A group project is preparing standard biotech “parts” for use in lab classes offered by Genspace.
  • A second group project is completing DNA barcoding of plant samples from an Alaskan region, as part of the DNA barcoding initiative of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life.19
  • The DNA Portraits project is collecting hair samples in public places, amplifying the DNA using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), examining regions of the DNA that impact personal appearance, and using the results to paint portraits of people the artist has never seen.

3 DRIVERS

DIY biotech is fueled both by the democratization of scientific equipment, supplies, and knowledge, and by the passion that drives scientists, both professional and amateur, to explore and innovate.

  • Empowerment means people expect a more participatory culture. The Internet and related technologies have led to a shift and decentralization of power—and with them the rise of a much more savvy, information-hungry, and knowledgeable class of consumers. Users are now makers, and are creating a growing fraction of all digital content, shared via YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. DIY biotech is in many ways driven by the same consumer motivations that lead to user- generated content in the digital world: the desire for participation, creativity, engagement, and the ability to share what one creates with the world. This is reflected in the broader “citizen science” movement, of which DIY biotech is a part.
  • Consumers are prosumers. Consumers increasingly desire professional-grade features and capabilities in their products and experiences, and can acquire the tools to achieve professional-grade outcomes in pursuit of their hobby activities. This prosumer phenomenon is one expression of the empowerment of consumers noted directly above.
  • DIY biotech is accessible, affordable. Much of the required equipment is available on eBay at prices that make setting up a laboratory within the reach of amateurs (though not inexpensive). Required reagents, organisms, and made-to-order synthetic DNA are also available.24 Amateurs and startups are offering inexpensive equipment, sometimes in kit form. For example, OpenPCR offers a kit for a PCR thermocycler used to copy DNA. The machine is controlled by a personal computer, its design is open-source, and it costs only $599.25 As Irish biohacker Cathal Garvey puts it, his goal is to demonstrate that biotechnology can be done “in an open-source fashion, and on a shoestring budget.”

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

Note that the development of the DIY biotech movement will be relevant to a range of industries—from energy and food, to pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

  • As some larger corporations have already recognized, the DIY biotech community is a potential source of innovation that should be included in open innovation efforts.
  • Outsourcing projects to citizen science labs that permit proprietary work could be an effective tool for exploring very- early-stage research in a low-risk, low-investment fashion.
  • Because the DIY biology movement is very young, there is an opportunity to build mutually beneficial relationships among academic, industrial, and DIY scientists that could pay dividends as the movement grows. There is opportunity for scientists in corporate and government laboratories to have a positive influence on the movement by providing resources, serving on advisory boards, suggesting interesting research problems, and so forth.