DIYbio

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DIYbio was founded by Mackenzie Cowell and Jason Bobe.[1] DIYbio is a network[2] of individuals from around the globe that aims to help make biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, biohackers, amateur biologists, and do-it-yourself biological engineers who value openness and safety.[3] Participants call themselves ‘biohackers’, not hackers in the sense of infiltrating protected places and stealing information, but hackers in the original sense of taking things apart and putting them back together in a new, better way.[4] These biohackers often pursue these interests outside of their jobs, companies or institutional labs.

History[edit]

DIYbio entered the San Francisco programmer and Maker communities as early as 2005, through demonstrations of DIYbio experiments. One such example is the CodeCon presentation in 2005 in which Meredith L. Patterson (another early contributor to the DIYbio network) demonstrated the purification of DNA with common household items during a presentation on SciTools, a recombinant DNA design tool.[5][6] As DIYbio experiments became the focus of SuperHappyDevHouse hackers, the hobby gained additional momentum. Many hackerspaces, such as Noisebridge, are offering lab space to DIYbio groups, further exposing otherwise biology-naive technologists to the art and science of synthetic biology.

In April 2009, the first conference with a DIYbio focus was held; CodeCon, produced by Len Sassaman and Bram Cohen, replaced 1/3 of its normal program with a special BioHack! track.[7] Along with other early citizen-scientists, Mackenzie Cowell spoke at this event, exposing more of the San Francisco underground code-hacking community to the concepts of DIYbio. DIYBio has now become a popular conference topic; it was the topic of the 2010 Humanity+ Summit at Harvard (subtitled "Rise of the Citizen Scientist"),[8] the Outlaw Biology Summit at UCLA [9] and was included in the program of the Open Science Summit 2010[10] at University of California, Berkeley.

The blending of biology expertise gained from experimentation, and software development, quality control, awareness of open source principles, and security expertise transferred from the professional work of many DIYbio enthusiasts, has led to a unique subculture among this community, with some members referring to themselves as biopunks in reference to the cypherpunks of the turn of the century. The work 'A Biopunk Manifesto'[11] delivered by Patterson at the UCLA conference lays down the principles of the biopunk movement, in an homage to the prior work of cypherpunk Eric Hughes. Patrik Ronnqvist, a Swedish biopunk who owns the domain biopunk.org, characterizes the difference between DIYbio and biopunk as being one of goals; he claims DIYbio hobbyists are more interested in building their own equipment, possibly due to a Maker influence, whereas the biopunks are more focused on results, and are thus open to outside contracting of gene sequencing and other procedures necessary for synthetic biology experiments.[12] That a significant proportion of the DIYbio mailing list membership are openly in support of outsourcing DNA synthesis and sequencing makes it difficult to determine whether this definition truly applies; in general, the two hobbies are impossible to distinguish and share a common community. Both are forms of citizen science.

Relation to other open source groups[edit]

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), the premiere undergraduate synthetic biology competition, is a hotbed for new do-it-yourself biology projects. The competition replicates the do-it-yourself biology environment by allotting each team a kit of biological parts and encouraging teams to design their own parts as well. However, this occurs in an institutional lab and DIY teams were not allowed to enter the competition until 2014, in which a special category for community labs was created. The goal for each team is to design a useful, innovative biological system.[13] Arising from this competition in the past few years are projects like bacteria that breakdown plastic waste in landfills to make it biodegradable, and ‘Dr. Coli,’ a self-regulating drug delivery system that, when it senses inflammation in the body, releases an appropriate dose of medicine to the inflamed area and withdraws when the inflammation subsides.[1]

DIYbio members value open-source, meaning designs and projects are usually under copyleft licenses. To this end, biohackers argue that innovation in the traditional biotechnology world is already being slowed by the red tape associated with patents, and it will be a travesty when the day arrives where a much needed vaccine or cure is delayed or priced out of a needy market by the same red tape (some would argue, in fact, that this is already true of malaria and HIV treatments in poorer nations).[14] Another advantage to the open source methodology is that any biohacker can easily build on and advance parts or systems designed by another biohacker. To biohackers, spreading knowledge is a higher priority than turning profits.

Much of the enthusiasm for do-it-yourself biology arises from the concept that small, entrepreneurial businesses, not large global corporations, are often the ones that introduce brilliant new ideas and technologies to the world. It is the large, global corporations that commercialize these innovations.[14] The way the biohackers see it, do-it-yourself biology is essentially an enormous number of small companies doing free research and development. DIYbio wants to revise the notion that you must be an academic with an advanced to degree to make any significant contribution to the biology community.

The local New York City DIYbio group holds weekly meetings at NYC Resistor’s space.[15] Russell Durrett, one of the founders of DIYbio NYC, says in a video that the group's goals include providing lab space to individuals with cool biology projects that normally would not have access to a lab and connecting biologists with investors who can fund their projects. Linda Caplinger, a member of DIYbio NYC, states that the local NYC group would eventually like to participate in iGEM.[2] It appears that the group is gearing up to enter the 1st Annual World Maker Faire in New York on September 25 and 26, 2010 at the New York Hall of Science.[16] Maker Faire, first held in 2006, is a fair that brings together science, art, craft, engineering, and music in a fun, energized, and exciting public forum. The aim is to inspire people of all ages to roll up their sleeves and become tinkerers.[17]

DIYbio was featured at a table in Newcastle Maker Faire in March, 2010, with DNA extraction experiments and projects involving isolation of luminescent bacteria being demonstrated or given away. The "Dremelfuge", an open-source, 3D printed Dremel-powered centrifuge,[18] was presented as an example of how Biotech can be made more accessible. A presentation on the potential of DIYbio and synthetic biology gathered a sizeable attendance.[19]

Controversy[edit]

DIYbio experiences many of the same criticisms as synthetic biology and genetic engineering already receive, plus other concerns relating to the distributed and non-institutional nature of the work. It is often alleged, for example, that an individual might attempt to or inadvertently create a biological weapon in their home, without the knowledge of regulators.

While these fears accompany many new areas of research and development, they are legitimized by the re-creation of the 1917 flu virus by Armed Forces Institute of Pathology researchers in 2005 [20] and other projects involving deadly viruses. While no DIYbio project to date has involved harmful agents, the fear remains in the minds of both regulators and laypersons.

However, this fear is not necessarily warranted. It is often pointed out that DIYbio is at too early a stage to consider such advanced projects feasible, as few successful transformative genetics projects have been undertaken yet. It is also worth noting that, while an individual could conceivably do harm with sufficient skill and intent, there exist biology labs throughout the world with greater access to the technology, skill and funding to accomplish a bioweapons project. Many of these labs can be found in countries such as Iran or North Korea. The United States of America, in fact, has one of the world's most advanced bioweapons research programs. Against a background of large, well-funded institutional war research, it seems unlikely that an individual will be the source of a bioweapon in the near or medium term.

Nevertheless, internal discussions and proposed projects for DIYbio members often include discussion of risk mitigation and public perception. An oft-discussed topic is the search for a convenient and safe "model organism" for DIYbio which would evoke less suspicion than E.coli. Suggestions include Janthinobacterium lividum,[21] Bacillus subtilis, Acetobacteria or Gluconacetobacter spp., and baker's yeast. A list of potential biosafe organisms was drawn up by the National Center for Biotechnology Education.[22]

While detractors argue that do-it-yourself biologists need some sort of supervision, enthusiasts argue that uniform supervision is impossible and the best way to prevent accidents or malevolence is to encourage a culture of transparency, where, in essence, do-it-yourself biologists would be peer reviewed by other biohackers.[23] Enthusiasts argue that fear of potential hazards should be met with increased research and education rather than closing the door on the profound positive impacts that distributed biological technology will have on human health, the environment, and the standard of living around the world.[3] Due to the lack of precedent regarding such a business model, the DIYbio founders see this as an opportunity to be innovators in regulatory and safety policy.[1]

Outreach[edit]

Beginning in 2009 the FBI engaged active members of the DIYbio Google Groups mailing list much like they engage scientific boards at universities and businesses. The dialogue focused on safety issues and aimed to instill a sense of self-policing in the ad-hoc online community. Because DIYbio and biohacking takes place on an international level, the FBI is limited in its ability to monitor and investigate all activity.[24]

See also[edit]

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