TUESDAY, 3 NOVEMBER 2015Have you ever wished to know whether the meat in your burger is really from a cow? Or have you ever wondered whether your DNA carries the mutation for a genetic disease? You can find it out for yourself! Do-It-Yourself Biology (short DIY Biology) makes it possible.
DIY Biology is a rapidly growing global movement, whose followers either set up their own laboratory at home or meet in community laboratories. Their aim is to demystify Biology by making it accessible to everybody.
In the spirit of ‘open science’, that is to make scientific research and data accessible to all levels of an inquiring society, the ideas and inventions of homemade lab equipment are shared on multiple platforms on the internet.
A DIY Biologist could be anyone: the enthusiastic amateur who is trying to isolate strawberry DNA in his kitchen for fun, the science teacher who is intending to find new ways to engage pupils, or the trained scientist who wants to develop a drug targeting a rare disease independent of academia and industry.
A key issue in DIY Biology is the cost and sourcing of scientific equipment. Until recently, purchasing laboratory gadgets was expensive, difficult and uncommon. Now, there are various ways by which people can get hold of scientific equipment: buy used, transform or find alternatives. For example, distil water with a rice cooker, transform a webcam into a microscope, or purify DNA using a mix of non-iodized table salt, meat tenderizer and shampoo. Instead of buying a gel imager to make DNA visible for £2,000, build one from a cardboard box (darkroom), a blue Christmas LED (illumination), an orange transparent sheet (filter) and a smartphone (image capture). A polymerase chain reaction machine for DNA mass-copying usually costs around £5,000, while a DIY version, called ‘OpenPCR’, is now available for £500. A conventional centrifuge is substituted by the ‘DremelFuge’ that is made out of an adapter on a power drill, which decreases the cost of centrifuging by about 80%.
Projects on which the DIY followers work can be mainly grouped into three categories: genetic engineering, biomaterial usage or genetic data analysis.
A DIY project that involves genetic engineering was motivated by a major food safety incident in China 2008, where hundred-thousands of people became ill and six infant died of melamine contamination milk. A DIY Biologist genetically modified Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus (a bacterium that turns milk into yogurt) in such a way that it glows green in darkness when sensing melamine.
A DIY approach that aims to use biomaterials is the ‘biological blue ink project’ by French DIY Biologists. Commercial ink contains heavy metals, non-renewable oils and volatile organic compounds that pose not only an environmental problem but also make ink toxic. A recyclable and non-toxic alternative is ‘biological blue ink’. It can be grown from a soil bacterium that naturally produces blue pigments and offers a wide range of blue nuances depending on the acidity. The clever DIY Biologists, who developed this renewable, non-toxic ink went a step further by commercialising the idea. They founded a start-up with biologists, chemists, economists, designers and engineers to bring the project forward and they organise workshops to spread the knowledge on how to grow ink.
Most common are projects involving DIY genetic analysis. One such project that engages the public in a global research process is the ‘BioWeatherMap Initiative’. The aim is to find out about the diversity and dynamics of microbial life around us. The results could help to predict threats to human, animal, or plant health. The public all over the world is called to collect specimens from approved public surfaces, to record the date, time, weather and geolocation, and to ship the specimens to the project organisers. They will do a high-throughput, low cost DNA sequencing analysis of the specimens and make the data public for everyone. Finally, this will give rise to a map that charts the distribution of microbial life according to time. Another more individual project was carried out in Germany. A DIY Biologist was frustrated of piles of dog poo in his yard. Instead of cleaning up one of the piles, he took a sample and analysed the DNA. Then, he threw tennis balls to the dogs in the neighbourhood, tested the DNA in the saliva on the balls and matched the results to the dog poo DNA. Soon the four-legged culprit was identified and the owner confronted.
Not everyone feels positive about the advent of DIY biology. Opening up the access to biotechnology outside traditional institutes worries some legislators and scientists. They have concerns that DIY Biology might pose a danger to public health and environmental safety, and that unregulated experiments conducted in kitchens and garages might accidentally or intentionally unleash biological disaster.
The DIY Biology community took the concerns seriously and a DIY bio code was developed in 2011. This code promotes documented adherence to safety regulations for DIY Bio practitioners, regional groups, and community labs. In addition, it emphasizes transparency and promotes open-access. The DIY bio code was initiated by DIYbio.org, a website that functions as an institution for DIY Biologists. DIYbio.org was founded in 2008 in Boston “with the mission of establishing a vibrant, productive and safe community of DIY biologists”. The DIYbio.org community is convinced that biotechnology and greater public understanding of DIY Biology has the potential to benefit everyone. On its website, 50 local groups are listed, 22 of which are European. Presumably, thousands of people from around the world contribute to the informal DIYbio.org community. How many members the global community exactly counts is unknown because there are no formal requirements to join and dozens of online venues and physical spaces exist that serve the community in different ways.
Another measure to enable safety, security and social acceptance within the DIYbio.org community was to set up a Question and Answer platform on biosafety. The web service is free and allows amateurs to submit questions to professional biosafety experts and members of the American biological safety association.
As helpful as these measures are to prevent accidents or unintended outcomes, DIY Biology could become a dangerous tool in the hands of less honest individuals. Possible threats are difficult to predict; like many scientific endeavours, DIY Biology could be both a blessing and a curse for humanity. However, presently it seems DIY Biology not only improves public engagement with science, but it also creates useful products and contributes meaningfully to scientific research.
Ellen Jorgensen, a committed advocate for DIY Biology, said in one of her talks: “You might be asking yourself, ‘What would I do in a biolab?’ Well, it wasn’t that long ago we were asking, ‘What would anyone do with a personal computer?’”. Some observers have been comparing the current state of DIY Biology with the state of computing in 1975, just before PCs took centre stage and changed everything forever. Let’s see what DIY Biology will bring us in the future.
Verena Brucklacher-Waldert is a post-doctoral researcher at the Babraham Institute.