Do-it-yourself biology (DIY biology, DIY bio) is a growing movement in which individuals, communities, and small organizations, study biology and life science using the same methods as traditional research institutions. DIY biology is primarily undertaken by individuals with extensive research training from academia or corporations, who then mentor and oversee other DIY biologists with no formal training. This may be done as a hobby, sometimes called biohacking, as a not-for-profit endeavor for community learning and open-science innovation, or for profit, to start a business.
The field is an early 21st-century phenomenon, begun because of the availability and falling costs of equipment, especially used equipment, and cheap computing. In 2005 Rob Carlson wrote in an article in Wired: "The era of garage biology is upon us. Want to participate? Take a moment to buy yourself a molecular biology lab on eBay." He then set up a garage lab the same year, working on project he had previously worked at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California. In 2008, DIYbio was founded by Jason Bobe and Mackenzie Cowell and its first meeting held.
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The motivations for DIY biology include (but aren't limited to) lowered costs, entertainment, medicine, bio-hacking, life extension, and education. Recent work combining open-source hardware of microcontrollers like the Arduino and RepRap 3-D printers, very low-cost scientific instruments have been developed.
Synthetic biology is a subset of professional biology, but its founders play a historical and ongoing role in the establishment of DIY biology. The definition of synthetic biology has been generally accepted as the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based (or inspired) systems, which display functions that do not exist in nature. This engineering perspective may be applied at all levels of the hierarchy of biological structures—from individual molecules to whole cells, tissues and organisms. In essence, synthetic biology will enable the design of 'biological systems' in a rational and systematic way.
Automated (DNA) construction and standards of abstraction
Abstraction is the process of generalization by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically in order to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose. It is a mechanism and practice to reduce and factor out details so that one may focus on a few concepts at a time. For example, abstracting “a well-worn, bouncy basketball” to simply “a ball” retains only the information on the attributes and behavior of a general ball. Similarly, abstracting an emotional state to “happiness” or “sadness” reduces the amount of information conveyed about the emotional state. However, these abstractions allow hiding complexity, and using more parts in a simpler design.
In synthetic biology, genetic code is abstracted into chunks, known primarily as biological "parts". These parts allow us to build increasingly complex systems; putting several parts together creates a "device", which is regulated by start codons, stop codons, restriction sites, and similar coding regions known as "features".
As in other fields, many programming languages can be used in DIY biology, but most of the languages that are used are those with large bioinformatics libraries. Examples include BioPerl or BioPython, which use the languages Perl and Python, respectively.
Criticism and concerns
Most criticism of the field involves potential hazards with lack of oversight by professionals or governments. Concerns about biohackers creating pathogens in unmonitored garage laboratories led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to begin sending its representatives to DIYbio conferences in 2009. Jason Bobe of DIYbio however said that many of the biosecurity fears of the FBI and the public are unfounded, and the FBI has since adopted a 'neighbourhood watch' stance which relies on biohackers monitoring their own community. Communities of biohackers have also come together to create codes of ethics, with a focus on transparency, safety and peaceful purposes.
- Rob Carlson. "Splice It Yourself: Who needs a geneticist? Build your own DNA lab.". Wired.
- Heidi Ledford (2010). "Garage biotech: Life hackers". Nature 467 (7316): 650–2. doi:10.1038/467650a. PMID 20930820.
- Pearce, Joshua M. 2012. “Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware.” Science 337 (6100): 1303–1304.open access
- DIYbio.org: www.diybio.org
- Synthetic Biology: Applying Engineering to Biology: Report of a NEST High Level Expert Group
- "The role of codes of conduct in the amateur biology community". Retrieved 4 February 2014.