DIY Science DIY Biology

DIY science is probably the oldest Science. Indeed, I see alchemists as being the DIY scientists of the enlightenment. In more recent times, I recognise people like Darwin and Mendel as being the curiosity driven DIY scientists of the day. For me, the rise of the current DIY Science is being facilitated by the prosaic reason of a surplus of materials, information, education, networks. My  motivation in being part of this is the idea that science should not be left to just academic and industrial institutions but should be democratised.

Some subject areas lend themselves better in the publics eye to DIY Science. A good example  is of asteroid finding(http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/2012/11/13/amateur-astronomer-locates-missing-earth-asteroid/). This requires relatively cheap hobby equipment. In this scientific community, amateurs are seen as making valid contributions. In a partnership with professional scientists important  findings are verified on expensive academic telescopes. In the areas of health, personal genomics also has made an impact, allowing people to share knowledge based on their genetic makeup. DIY Biology is seen by publics and agencies to be of a different nature because of the possibility within this large area, of doing actual genetic engineering(GE). However, DIY Biology is more than just GM, its about cooking, fermenting, breadmaking, plant breeding and cultivation. The nice thing about DIY Biology is that it can be kitchen based and can actually feed us, in a way that academic science does not. GE is a specialization that becomes feasible only after learning basic techniques like the cultivation and breeding of microbes, plants and animals.
In its simplest form DIY Biology is close to a zero budget pursuit. For the cost of a coffee you can do a basic DNA extraction, experience the wonders of bacterial phosphorescence, and set up a daphnia or brine shrimp breeding colony. For a few more dollars, hack a webcam into a digital microscope. This cheapness does not mean it is unsophisticated. These simple experiments can teach us about quorum sensing, purification strategies, predator prey relationships, complex lifecycles to name a few. As a community activity both the questions and data come from the public resulting in extensive rather than precise data collection.  To an extent it should be separated from the, albeit also important, academic science public crowd sourcing model such as the galaxy classification effort Galaxy Zoo(http://www.galaxyzoo.org/).
For me DIY Biology started as a self funded pursuit, after being influenced by artist projects that used biology as a material (notably pigwings http://tcaproject.org/projects/pig-wings). However, recently a large segment of DIY Biologists now come from a computing or engineering background. This isn’t surprising when you concider that DIY Biology groups often start in an already established hackerspace such as DIYBIO MCR in MADLAB, Manchester. After being partnered with an academic institution and funded by a Wellcome trust grant, DIYBIO MCR has now moved to a new dedicated space, where  more complicated experiments can be attempted. A different model is the nomadic lab (for instance http://hackteria.org/?p=1848 ‘s 5 day Nomadic Science Lab in a bar in Prague ), where space is found in different venues, a temporary lab constructed for a short time.

In the context of GM, community labs provide the environment, the safety and the expertise to navigate a person through the complexities of biotechnology. DIY Biology works…..if you already know how to do biology. It’s an extension of the academic lab into the community onto the kitchen table or garage. Community projects are funded by science engagement agencies (such as Welcome) crowd funding websites (such as kickstarter), as science engagement by museums and by philanthropists. Although DIYBio practitioners often can’t afford new equipment they can benefit from the relentless upgrade cycle of the scientific community which results in surplus machines that need a new home. With the instability of biotechnology startups, firesales of bankrupt biotechnology firms are also a source of current technology for DIY Bio. Another avenue is the generation of new equipment using comodity electronics, personal fabrication, and microcontroller platforms such as arduino for example openpcr, a kickstarter funded pcr machine.

An example of a successful crowd sourced diybio projects is the microbe map by DIYBio-MCR, where bus stops were swabbed for bacteria. All of the participants were shown how to sample bacteria from the environment and the resulting data visualised as a map (http://www.danhett.com/projects/microbe/). What this data means is still up to interpretation. I see it more of a model of other scientific projects. It was designed in collaboration with a biological lab, and the permission of the council to swab buss stops.

On safety issues, most DIY Biology doesn’t pose any more significant issues than working in kitchens, bakeries or breweries. You do work with ‘food’, you want to culture specific organisms (as in bread or yogurt making) by using selective media, you want to minimise or eliminate contamination through the use of aseptic techniques, to inactivate experiments with heat, pressure, alcohols, and bleaches.

A large community of DIY Biologist regularly exchange information, advise, questions and problems on email forums like the http://diybio.org. This is important, as it gives us a chance to critique what experiments are being considered. For example, recently a poster was considering ordering a lentivirus to do some transformations into mamalian cells. It was quickly pointed out that this was not a safe thing to do, that it poses risk to the experimenter and that it was definitely *not* diybio. This is an important point. People think that so much of their daily lives is controlled for risk(e.g. food poisoning), that they have forgotten that they have to take responsibility for their own safety (or have it pointed out by others), and that not everything that can be done should be done.

We also access sites such as instructables for the construction of lab equipments (http://www.instructables.com/id/Teaching-Tools-Biology-Edition/), openwetware for materials, protocols and resources (http://openwetware.org/wiki/Materials). We are also spread over the social networks like twitter, facebook, google+.

The current DIY Biology movement is young, and has already spawned groups, infrastructures, equipment and project. In academic labs, synthetic biology experiments are going on into making biologically based sensors. The next challenge is for DIY Biology to start accessing this, to make devices that can be shared as easily as a sourdough starter, as this will represent a real democratisation, with biosensors becoming part of the Internet of Things in our homes, kitchens and workplaces.

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