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Glyphs & Graphs is a writing experiment by Naveen Srivatsav - an attempt at hypertext wordplay, intentionally amorphous thought experiments non-committal to any specific genre or topic. Enjoy, and feel free to reach out via social media.

DIYBio - a look at citizen scientists hacking genetic engineering in their garages

An illustrative timeline

2003 - Craig Venter unveils a man-made viral genome. Synthetic biology is born.

2003 - Tom Knight publishes a paper establishing fundamentals of Biobricks. These standardised gene sequences form plug-and play DNA-based biological circuits.

2004 - The first iGEM competition is held. Biobricks are submitted to the Registry of Biological Parts, maintained by MIT.

2008 - Mackenzie Cowell is inspired to set up DIYbio.org after working at iGEM to groom amateur biologists & citizen scientists.


Origins of DIYBio 

In 2003, Craig Venter ushered in a new approach to genetic engineering when he unveiled a man-made viral genome and promised the world artificially designed zombie cells. Thus, synthetic biology was born, and it became conceivable to make living machines that could be programmed to carry out desired tasks.

Shortly after, Tom Knight, a big name in Silicon Valley, turned his attention to genetics. Bringing his programming approach to synthetic biology, he proposed a novel idea to introduce a drag-and-drop philosophy to working with gene sequences. These Biobricks treat verified and standardized gene sequences as blackboxes, that will function as they are intended to, independently of upstream and downstream gene sequences. By joining together different combinations of Biobricks, biological organisms can be programmed into machines with different objectives.

Since the reservoir of gene sequences is constantly growing, it is impossible for one person or one team to progressively catalog all possible Biobricks. So, the MIT Registry of Biological Parts was set up, to build up a public domain database of standardised Biobricks. New sequences are contributed annually by undergraduate teams working on the iGEM competition.

After working with iGEM for a while, Mackenzie Cowell, an MIT graduate of biology, felt that the biotechnological skills & knowledge used by iGEM undergraduates could also be shared with the greater public. He started DIYbio with other biology enthusiasts who shared his vision regarding hobbyist biology. They set up a website, DIYbio.org, to share information and know-how to anyone interested to learn. The community has responded well, and grown quickly.


What DIYBio is trying to achieve 

As Mac Cowell puts it, “[DIYbio] shows you how much science can be about duct tape and having a few screws at the right place. It shatters the clinical image.” By bringing biotechnology to amateurs, DIYbio aims to groom a new generation of biologists, many of whom are not biologists by training. This is what Cowell refers to as cross-pollination of expertise, which he argues can bring new insights to the biotechnology as a whole. In fact, the un-instituitionalized aspect of DIYbio could be a feature by itself, not a bug. Cowell argues that unrestricted creativity could produce breakthroughs.

Essentially, the biggest supporters of DIYbio, are drawing parallels to other success stories where amateurs have actually advanced science in some way. Amateur stargazers do make significant observations, contributing to astronomy. Citizen tree-huggers are some of the most prolific flora and fauna cataloguers, and instrumental to conducting wildlife census. Apple and Google were born in suburban garages. DIYbio's ardent supporters ask, what if the next Bill Gates of biotech could be found in the DIYbio community?

Since passionate DIYbiologists are not motivated by the same factors as traditional researchers (e.g. funding, patents etc.), their approach and efforts can effect fundamentally different, most practical, more realizable goals. So, it is possible that DIY biologists can complement official research work.

And finally, DIYbio can be a better interface between scientists and the public, compared to traditional institutions. This is because citizen scientists will have more sway among their immediate friends and family than the combined might of the mass media. A viral effect of support can be expected if more people hear about DIYbio through positive word-of-mouth.


The rise of the biohackers 

The success of the DIYBio phenomenon can be attributed to two main reasons:

  1. the Open Science concept that allows transparent and remote information & skills transfer.


  2. the fact that the cost of biological equipment is becoming cheaper.


Budding scientists can pick up DIYbio easily with just a high school biology background. The internet has played a big role in making this happen. The community's websites feature step-by-step tutorials, friendly guide videos for anyone interested in carrying out experiments and invite readers to join the mailing lists or contribute on the wikis.

Early DIYbiologists were aware that high costs would be a big barrier for newcomers to cross. So they experimented extensively and compiled a list of off-the-shelf household items that could be substituted for more expensive chemicals. They have shown that expensive DNA extraction buffers, for example, can be replaced with common detergents with no consequence!

Teams of DIYbiologists are even working on making cheaper hardware alternatives to expensive commercial lab equipment. The Pearl Gel Box is a testament to this effort. It is a professional grade gel electrophoresis box with a built-in transilluminator for just USD$199, almost half the price of the commercial equivalent.

With access to valuable information catering to any level, and falling costs, it is no wonder that DIYBio is becoming a feasible option for budding hobbyists. The growth of the DIYBio community has so closely paralleled the Open Source hobbyist community explosion that the term “hacker” has been deemed appropriate, by the public, to refer to DIYbiologists. However, the “biohackers” in question, DIYbiologists, don't necessarily appreciate the title, especially if “hacker” comes with the negative connotations reserved for deviant programmers who are most popular for malicious computer practices.


Public reactions to DIYBio 

Since the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep, the public has been more and more concerned about the ethical issues involved in modifying life as we know it. As such, they tend to focus their attention on the life sciences, including biotechnological advances like genetic engineering and synthetic biology. "Just because we can doesn't mean we should," is a central argument from the cautious general public.

The closed nature of the traditional scientific establishment doesn't help to allay the public's fears. The latest advances and theories only trickle down to the public domain through specialised and isolated sources. This is not conducive to appeasing public curiosity and concern. As a result, there are some damaging misconceptions and pre-conceived notions, that have not been addressed with sound explanations and elaborations.

Like most hobbyist pursuits, DIYbio appeals to a specific group of, for lack of a better word, geeks. And since it is still in its infancy, there has been minimal publicity to the masses. A lot of people simply have not heard of DIYbio. Even if they do come across DIYbio, the non-traditional lab setting and the fact that DIYbiologists don't have to be formally trained biologists, don't inspire much confidence. 

In general, the public's perception of any experimental science is that research is always conducted in sterile laboratories by smart people in lab coats. In some sense, this imagery is comforting. People want to believe that potentially dangerous research is (only) being done by the people best/most qualified to understand and deal with it.

So, while a DIYbiologist uses the word "amateur" to convey the idea that his hobby is extra-curricular, the public sees the adjective as an indication of the competence level of citizen scientists.

Due to all these factors, understandably, the public is bound to have some apprehension about DIYbiologists and their work. The survey we did, to get public opinion on DIYbio, reflects this quite clearly. It may be a long time before the masses are comfortable with their fellow citizens brazenly conducting biological experiments in their own homes.

Getting the general public's support, however, will be a crucial step if DIYbio intends to be a growing community.

  1. In 2004, Art Professor Steve Kurtz was arrested on suspicion of being a bioterrorist. Authorities investigated his role in his wife's heart attack just because petri dishes and other laboratory equipment were found in his home.

  2. As recently as 2008, retired chemist Victor Deeb's home in Marlboro, Mass. was found to have numerous vials of varying chemicals. None of them posed any biological or radiological risk, and most were no more harmless than typical household solutions. Authorities confiscated all of Mr. Deeb's materials, even though he had broken no laws.

These can be considered cautionary tales for DIYbiologists who also intend to conduct experiments in their own homes.


Points of concern 

Is the public wrong to be skeptical about the dangers of DIYbio? Unlike the other sciences, biology is the least understood and least predictable. Our understanding of biology is not extensive, and we default to the reductionist method in biological research for a good reason.

Non-supporters ask if DIYbiologists are able to handle the situation if an accident occurs? In a traditional lab at least, there would be some system of regulation of materials, equipment and consumables. All researchers would be certified competent, and safety standards and protocol can be enforced. Such regulations are our first line of defense against biological accidents; and it is not obvious whether DIYbio labs can offer this assurance.

Also, in a traditional lab, consumables are inventoried and their use is monitored. So, any unauthorised activity can be minimized or tracked. If DIYbio is made simplistic and easy, people with malicious intent may misuse such knowledge anonymously. Even a simple act like contaminating water supplies would be enough to cause great damage. Non-supporters are convinced that DIYbio cannot guarantee against such misuse.


In DIYBio's defense…

Mackenzie Cowell feels that some of these concerns are unfounded or unfair. Only by ensuring that the DIYbio community's activities are open and transparent can these misconceptions be dispelled. For example, malicious users who want to use dangerous gene sequences, such as those from Ebola, could do so just as easily, without DIYbio. However the general public seems to be unaware of the fact that these gene sequences are in the public domain. In that sense, DIYbio should not be held pre-emptively responsible for misuse only because of ignorance & irrational fear.

Cowell also feels that the DIYbio community should welcome the public to engage them by being open and transparent. In this way, anyone who needs to or wants to monitor DIYbio, will find it easy to do so. If DIYbio manages to convince the majority, then this majority will be DIYbio’s first and best line of defense against naysayers.

Even our team was split on our views about DIYbio. We had a heated debate on the matter, and compiled the main points of each side's argument.

The opposition

The opposition against DIYbio, felt that there were too many risks to DIYbio to justify pursuing it. For example, if accidents were to occur, containing the contamination would be significantly harder than contamination in a lab. The potential hazards, accidental or malicious, are far too numerous to avoid without proper regulation.

The bulk of the scientific establishment is based in institutionalized laboratories for a reason. DIYbiologists should be strongly encouraged to follow the "right path" as it were, and only engage in biological experiments in proper labs under supervision. Moreover, laboratories are governed by special panels who also decide on ethically ambiguous issues. The DIYbio community will lack the means to enforce ethics-consciousness across the board.

Proposition’s views

The "proposition", the supporters of DIYbio within the team, feel that restricting DIYbio, or banning it alone, does not solve the issue at hand. If we must be cautious, we must at least wake up to the fact that DIYbio is already here and deal with it. If we can be a bit more supportive, then we can identify DIYbio's strengths, and recognise its potential to be the next big thing.

The proposition is definitely aware of safety and security risks involved, but avoiding the issue is not the solution. We would like to suggest a slightly different approach. If we can argue that being IT-savvy helps people become more secure online, then by similar argument, being bio-savvy will actually make people safer as well. Via communities like DIYbio, biological knowledge can reach the masses. The community can work towards inculcating good safety practices and a strong sense of ethics & responsibility among those interested. As they learn biological techniques, they will also come across the need for such measures, thus increasing their bio-savviness.

So, the new generation of DIYbiologists & DIYbio-aware/tolerant public will actually be more informed, and more equipped, to deal with biological accidents than an un-initiated individual.


Our recommendations 

Moving forward, DIYbio can become a sustainable and interesting community. From what we have gathered from our research, our survey and our debate, the following are the top issues that must be addressed to ensure the success of DIYbio.

  1. Publicity & Outreach

  2. Accountability & Transparency

  3. Safety, security & ethics

Publicity & Outreach

DIYbio must get the good word out about their work and their goals. Doing so will serve the dual role of attracting interested parties as well raising awareness among the general public. Once the masses are familiar with DIYbio, then the initial shock and resistance against home experimentation will be more manageable. The DIYbio official website tries to catalog a comprehensive list of any and all press articles that have covered them here.

It's great that DIYbiologists are working on finding cheaper alternatives to make it a more inclusive hobby. DIYbio can also work on introducing a sense of direction and purpose into the community. This can be done by organising competitions, having themed discussions, or in general, organizing inclusive activities for the community. We believe that such activities will engage the community, challenge DIYbiologists with short-term goals to work toward, and provide them with a sense of commitment towards their hobby and the community. In this way, the DIYbio community can grow in a more robust manner.

Accountability & transparency

DIYbio already has a healthy regard for being open and transparent, and there are no secrets from the general public. In addition, we believe it should adopt some system to un-anonymise the community. Setting up a DIYbio community based social network is one way of doing this; imagine a Facebook for DIYbio! Members can more easily find other DIYbiologists in their area, organise meetups, share what they're doing, get advice on whatever they're doing and so on. All the while, there is a public record of all discussions, meetups & transactions on the website. This will go a long way in increasing public confidence about the transparency of the community.

DIYbio can also effect a web-shop to sell sensitive items such as bacterial cultures, pipettes or DNA gel stains to registered members. This does not have to be a monetary enterprise, so that DIYbio can remain a not-for-profit organization. The idea here is to introduce some level of accountability for the consumables that DIYbiologists need to use.

One other important way to introduce accountability to DIYbio relates back to an earlier point. By having a clear purpose, DIYbiologists can as a community, work towards fixed goals. Naysayers will not and should not get the opportunity to cast doubt on DIYbio as a whimsical hobby; let it not be said that DIYbiologists have idle minds ripe for spawning mischief.

For example, one of the advantages of the DIYbio approach is that there is no compulsion to source research funding or file patents like real researchers. So what if the DIYbio community can complement local instituitional research efforts? Perhaps DIYbio can be the "crowd-sourced" approach to the extensive task of developing biological standards, indexes & references.

In this way, we believe that DIYbio can build up credibility among the public, while offering participants a definite sense of achievement. To the community's credit, they have already displayed their eagerness to collaborate by approaching some iGEM teams in their area to work together.

Safety, security & ethics

We are not denying that DIYbio has a lot of potential. That potential can be tapped, surely and safely, if the community can address the safety & security concerns. By practicing good transparency & accountability, most of the battle against malicious intent will have been won.

Earlier this year, DIYbio was not allowed to participate in iGEM'09 due to a number of factors. Among these, the most important was that iGEM undergraduate teams had an academic safety framework that DIYbio (as a community) did not have. As such, DIYbio could be a safety liability until this could be implemented.

On that note, the team is compelled to agree with iGEM's offical ruling about the need for safety framework. If DIYbio gets to participate in iGEM, it will instantly gain public exposure among core demographics, like undergraduates. So it would be great if DIYbio is legitimized as a worthy example of responsible & safe citizen experimentation. Not only would good press attract a large population to pick up DIYbio, the lack of bad press would be the equivalent of removing a major potential thorn. The DIYbio community must treat early criticism as an opportunity to improve, rather than roadblocks.

Fortunately, this attitude is clearly present in the DIYbio community. Instead of getting discouraged or resentful about getting disqualified, quick action was taken and discussions are underway on how to consolidate and effect a safety protocol and framework for the DIYbio community. This is a commendable attitude. Keep up the great work, DIYbio!

To address the ethics issue, we have a message for DIYbiologists. This was actually one issue the opposition brought up that the proposition could not in good conscience argue with, in our internal team debate. Ethics usually comes down to a moral judgement call, and usually it is only resolved when the higher authority imposes strict rules on whether or not an ethically-controversial issue can be pursued.

In DIYbio's case, we may not be able to enforce or impose perceived ethical absolutes. So we must appeal to DIYbiologists' reason and intellect.


Parting words 

We would like to end our essay with this firm, serious and yet hopeful message. According to Markus Schmidt, renowned biosecurity expert, the time for debate is now, whether or not we vote in favour of DIYbio. The time is ripe for DIYbio to flourish; but just as possible are the potential hazards. It would be preferable if we, as a society, are all agreeable on the direction of DIYbio. 

We must be cautiously optimistic about DIYbio's potential. We cannot readily draw parallels to other success stories that started at the amateur level.

Unlike the other sciences, biology is dynamic and never at equilibrium. In other experiments, the results can be predicted in some sense, because they are governed intimately by the laws of physics. However, biological systems are inherently designed to adapt rapidly and unpredictably, to narrow down the most efficient options for survival.

As such, we cannot afford to take unnecessary chances because we cannot predict the outcome or the magnitude of our actions. So if you engage in DIYbio, have fun but act responsibly!


(Originally published here: http://2009.igem.org/Team:NTU-Singapore/HPA/Essay)

References 

  1. "DIYbio Press." from http://diybio.org/press/ .

  2. (2009). "About DIYbio." from http://diybio.org/about .

  3. Ajioka, J. H. J. (2009). "Synthetic biology: history, challenges and prospects.Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

  4. Boustead, G. (2008) "Why does all biology happen in academic or industrial labs? Mac Cowell, co-founder of DIYbio seeks to change that.SEED Magazine

  5. Cowell, M. (2009) "iGEM Closes Doors to Amateurs."

  6. DIYbio (2008). DIYbio - Google Groups.

  7. DIYbio. (2009). "DIYbio Projects." from http://diybio.org/projects/ .

  8. DIYbio. (2009, 7 April 2009). "DIYbio FAQ." from http://openwetware.org/wiki/DIYbio/FAQ .

  9. Grushkin, D. (2009) "Am I a biohazard?The Scientist.

  10. Johnson, C. Y. (2008) "Accessible Science.Boston Globe.

  11. Koerner, B. I. (2009) "DIY DNA: One Father's Attempt to Hack His Daughter's Genetic Code.Wired Magazine.

  12. McKenna, P. (2009) "Rise of the garage genome hackers.New Scientist.

  13. Schmidt, M. (2008). "SYNbioSAFE." from http://www.synbiosafe.eu/index.php?page=expert-interviews .

  14. Wohlsen, M. (2008) "Do It Yourself DNA: Amateurs Trying Genetic Engineering At Home."

  15. YANES, J. (2008) "Biohackers: bursting and reinventing biology from garages.Publico.es.

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