Innovation in DIY Biology

The following is an interesting perspective on the practice of DIY biology from guest contributor Noga Aharony.

Less than five years ago, Will Canine came to New York City to participate in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Now, he’s the founder of OpenTrons, a laboratory automation start-up in one of the most prestigious accelerators in the world. The missing link? A biohacking bootcamp in a DIY biology laboratory in Brooklyn named Genspace.

When they formed almost 10 years ago, Genspace’s goal is to democratize biology. Now, with a fully equipped lab, they run workshops, community projects, and high school outreach programs with the goal of making biology literacy available for all.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, you could find BioCurious. This lab was launched around the same time as Genspace, by members of a biotech start-up who couldn’t afford access to a traditional laboratory. They wanted to make it easier to innovate in biology. In the years since, they’ve spawned over 30 biotech start-ups.

Now, according to the DIYbiosphere, the online hub for DIY biologists, there are now over 52 community laboratories worldwide, each with its own character. They’re in Canada, Slovenia, Peru, and Bangladesh. Their focus ranges from education, to art, to innovation.

Improving Science

OpenTrons is one of many start-ups that begin rising from community laboratories. “I was inspired by the DIY biology movement’s goal to press the tools to do biotechnology into the hands of everyone, globally.” Will says, “Biotechnology has the potential to solve so many of the world’s problems – it’s a way to make food, clothing, and drugs, while maintaining a safe and less toxic environment.”

Will realized that the time it takes to master these skills is slowing down the development of life-saving innovations. He founded OpenTrons and began producing $4,000 liquid-handling machines to speed up and standardize experiments. Today, you can find their machines in the majority of top universities.

Success stories like Will’s are becoming more and more common. Innovations in DIY biology range from bioprinters that lay plant cells together, to algae that makes sustainable cloth, to bricks and foam made out of mushrooms and kits that detect the origin of the salmon on your table.

A Skilled Bunch

The idea that innovation could rise from biohackers, or amateur biologists, has been dismissed over and over in the discussion about DIY biology’s value. How could they ever exceed the rigor of corporate or academic labs? However, many of these innovations are spearheaded by trained biologists who found autonomy in the DIY scene that was unachieveable within the constraints of academia.

Most will associate growing food in space with Matt Damon’s potato garden in the Ridley Scott’s the Martian, but a postdoctoral student at the University of Edinburgh has a more refined idea. Together with two engineers, a physicist, and a Microbiologist, Máté Ravasz is constructing a Mars bioreactor - a machine capable of growing green algae as a potential food source for Astronauts.

Máté is a trained biologist with access to a lab and experience building bioreactors, but the community lab, Ascus, is still the only place where he could carry his project. “In academia, getting a publication is key, and all the resources have to be spent on that. But here, there are no incentives. I can explore ideas I would not have been able to otherwise.”

The Freedom To Explore

“Back in university, I was using fungi to grow bricks stronger than asphalt,” tells Elliot Roth. “I searched for a lab where I could work on this project, but every professor I talked to said they didn’t have the space, or that it was pointless since it wasn’t publishable, or that they didn’t have the resources.” Elliot has since found refuge in his local community lab in Richmond, Virginia. He founded Spira, where he sells kits to grow spirulina, an especially nutritious alga that grows at an unbelievable pace that was first studied in NASA. Elliot has been bringing his invention from the sky to the ground: last year, the World Food Program requested that he asses whether spirulina could enhance food security.

 “When working on a DIY project you have more freedom to think, and more chances to make mistakes than with start-ups,” says Simon Porphy, co-founder of Microsynbiotix.

A once-passion project in the BioCurious community lab, Microsynbiotix is now engineering algae into oral vaccine delivery platforms. The goal is ultimately, to create an alternative to feeding antibiotics to the fish that later end on our plates. An important service amidst growing concerns about antibiotics-resistant bacteria, which are made more common with every dose.

Open-Access Culture

Rising from the CounterCulture Labs in Oakland, California, the OpenInsulin project is devoted to making a free, open protocol for insulin production. “I was frustrated with the status quo,” says Anthony Di Franco, the head of the project and a type I diabetic. “We should be the ones controlling our treatments. Not any pharmaceutical companies.” Their goal is to give diabetics the power to be self-sufficient, and at the least, lead to the production of cheap, generic insulin by democratizing information and capabilities that only a few pharmaceutical companies have right now.

This approach to science and medicine is not unique to OpenInsulin. Open source culture initially rose in the IT industry in the form of publicly-available code that anyone can use or improve upon, but this idea has taken a stronghold in DIY biology. “But for us it goes a lot deeper,” Anthony says, “We don’t only need access to the knowledge but to the tools to do that. We need the whole pipeline and the whole feedback loop to be open.”

In a way, open science is the only viable strategy for community labs, says Maria Chavez, executive director of BioCurious. Their lab runs community science projects that anyone can attend, with meticulous, online, publicly available, lab notebooks that describes their weekly progress. “We do it for practical reasons. When you have a community project that turns into a company, it’s difficult: how do you compensate people who volunteered on the project?“

A side effect of removing barrier to biology is increased collaboration among fields. “We are kind of the matchmakers. We get scientists from different disciplines in touch with each other,” says Kenza Samlali, who runs a community lab named BricoBio in Montreal, “a few months ago, we were approached by an architect who was interested in biotechnology so that she could grow materials that she can use. She ended up doing a university-affiliated fellowship with us. Now she wants to get involved.”

These collaborations facilitate innovation by bringing together diverse teams with greater capabilities than any one member of the team. The culture of open science forms the bedrock to innovation.

Though this field is beginning to flourish, community laboratories still live in a flux. “When scientists come into BricoBio they ask, ‘what is the limit of this?’ ‘how far can I go and do a real experiment?’” says Kenza.

“We’re in the early days of trying to figure out how it works,” says Zach Mueller, co-founder of SoundBio. All of the members of the lab are volunteers, and they all have day jobs. To keep the lights on, they’re experimenting with offering educational opportunities and teaming with corporate sponsors.

The Concerns

A few years ago, a Kickstarter campaign to create a glowing plant received criticism for the potential ramifications that releasing such a plant to the wild could have. Another wave of criticism came when a start-up named the Odin began selling kits with CRISPR-Cas9, an enzyme that can theoretically be used to modify human cells’ genetic code.

Recently, the publication of an experiment detailing how to construct a previously-extinct strain of horsepox, a relative of the deadly smallpox, lead to a New York Times article expressing worries that DIY biologists will be able to use the publication as a guide to create the virus at home, making ’DIY pandemics’. In reality, only a seasoned virologist with a well-equipped lab and numerous connections could construct such a deadly virus, but nonetheless DIY biology’s drive to democratize science has instilled the fear that it will lead to the democratization of dangerous tools.

The nascence of DIY biology lead to fears that an inability to self-regulate will result in individuals pursuing unethical projects. In academic laboratories, one has to go through specific training programs before beginning to work, biosafety officers are available in case there are any issues or questions, and each project is evaluated by an Institutional Review Board that assesses its ethics.

These mechanisms are still in development in DIY biology. Dan Grushkin of Genspace and Todd Kuiken, a scholar in the University of North Carolina, are currently developing biosafety protocols and training two biosafety officers who will specialize in DIY biology using funding from the Open Philanthropy Project.

In the meantime, community laboratories are finding different ways to work with authorities and build the infrastructure needed. Many laboratories, including Genspace in New York, BUGSS in Baltimore, and BioCurious in Silicon Valley, have been in touch with FBI coordinators for years.  BioCurious has also set up their own version of an Institutional Review Board, through which every project has to be approved before it starts. “Sometimes I have to tell someone ‘that’s a great project. You can’t do that here.’” Says Maria Chavez.

Up in Seattle, SoundBio has taken a different approach. The lab’s close ties to University of Washington allowed it to model its safety after the norms in academia. “We made sure to put together a biosafety manual for our lab before we even opened the space.” When in doubt about safety, they turn to the university.

In Canada, it’s the public health authorities, namely, Health Canada, who contacts DIY biology labs as they open and offer them resources. “Health Canada has put a lot of trust in us,” Says Kenza Samlali, who runs BricoBio in Montreal. ”We don’t want to disappoint them.”

In Mexico, community laboratories require a license. Ricardo Chavez has already filed the paperwork and is currently waiting for the Environmental Agency’s approval for the first DIY biology lab. “In the beginning, it was a common misconception that getting a permit was really hard, but it wasn’t until we got in touch with the authorities that we found out that it was easy.” Ricardo was so encouraged by the interaction with government, that he now sits on the National Commission on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms.

These biospaces do not work in isolation. In October this year, the MIT Community Biotechnology Initiative will be throwing the second annual conference, which will be attended by DIY biologists from all over the world. Heads of community labs in Canada, Mexico, and the United States also form ‘the network of the independent biospaces.’ The goal is to be a resource to one another and build community standards.

 “We all know that we need to have a higher standard of safety. We’re under a magnifying glass.” Says Maria from BioCurious. “We want to make sure we’re part of the discussion in biosecurity. If we know what the concerns are, we can fix them.”

Policy considerations aside, DIY biologists are full of hope. “I think that community labs have a really vital place in the world and in history,” Says Will Canine of OpenTrons, “we’re still at the early days of biotechnology, and we’re accelerating much faster than mainstream technology.”