Do-it-yourself biology

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"DIYbio" redirects here. For the organization, see DIYbio (organization).

Do-it-yourself biology (DIY biology, DIY bio) is a growing biotechnological social 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, as a not-for-profit endeavor for community learning and open-science innovation, or for profit, to start a business.

Other terms are also associated with the do-it-yourself biology community. The terms biohacking and wetware hacking emphasize the connection to hacker culture and the hacker ethic.[1][2] The term hacker is used in the original sense of taking things apart and putting them back together in a new, better way. However, some community members dislike the term due to its second, more widespread meaning referring to illicit activity.[3] The term biohacking is also used by the grinder body modification community, which is considered related but distinct from the do-it-yourself biology movement.[4] The term biopunk emphasizes the techno-progressive, political, and artistic elements of the movement. It is meant as an analogy to either the cyberpunk science fiction genre[5] or the cypherpunk citizen cryptography movement,[6] and its connection to the biopunk science fiction genre is unclear.[7]


The term "biohacking" as well as the concept of do-it-yourself biology as been known as early as 1988.[8][9][10]

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.[11][12] 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 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."[13] 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.[14]

In 2008, the DIYbio organization was founded by Jason Bobe and Mackenzie Cowell and its first meeting held.[15]

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.[16] 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"),[17] the Outlaw Biology Summit at UCLA [18] and was included in the program of the Open Science Summit 2010[19] at University of California, Berkeley.


The DIYbio movement seeks to revise the notion that one must be an academic with an advanced degree to make any significant contribution to the biology community. It allows large numbers of small organizations and individuals to participate in research and development, with spreading knowledge a higher priority than turning profits.[20]

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.[21] It is a result of the availability and falling costs of equipment, especially used equipment, and cheap computing.

Community laboratory space[edit]

Many organizations maintain a laboratory akin to a wet-lab makerspace, providing equipment and supplies for members. Many organizations also run classes and provide training. Russell Durrett, one of the founders of Genspace in New York City, 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.[citation needed]

Open source equipment[edit]

The movement emphasizes DIY genetic experiments and open access to scientific and specifically genetic material.[6][22][23] The DIY biology movement attempts to make available the tools and resources necessary for anyone, including non-professionals, to conduct biological engineering.[22][23] For example, low-cost thermocyclers such as OpenPCR have been created to make a crucial technology more widely available to the public.[24][25][26] DIY biologists often conduct genetic engineering in garage or basement laboratories and often with the use of Open source or home made equipment.[2][22][27]

DIYbio members value open-source, meaning designs and projects are usually under copyleft licenses, seeking to avoid the red tape associated with patents and allow fellow biohackers to easily improve the parts or systems.[20]


Some members of the movement emphasize organizing to create public awareness of how Genomic information, produced by bioinformatics, gets used and misused. On the basis of a presumed parallel between genetic and computational code, Science journalist Annalee Newitz has called for open-sourcing of genomic databases and declared that "Free our genetic data!" is the rallying cry of the biopunk.[5][28] Biological Innovation for Open Society is an example of an open-source initiative in biotechnology aiming to apply open license for biological innovation.[29]

Biologist, speculative-fiction author, and self-described biopunk, Meredith L. Patterson is known for her work on yogurt bacteria within the DIYbio community, as well as being the author of "A Biopunk Manifesto",[6] which she delivered at the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics' symposium, "Outlaw Biology? Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio". This manifesto is modeled after "A Cypherpunk Manifesto" by Eric Hughes, which states the goals of the cypherpunk movement. The influence of the cypherpunks (a cyberpunk derivative like the biopunk subculture) on the biopunk community does not end there; Patterson's husband and long-time collaborator Len Sassaman was a cypherpunk contemporary of Hughes. Patterson and Sassaman have worked together on a number of biohacking projects and heavily promoted the continued legality of citizen science, both on moral and practical grounds.[30][31]

Research topics[edit]

Do-it-yourself biology draws inspiration from the field of synthetic biology, whose founders play a historical and ongoing role in the establishment of DIY biology.[32] The definition of synthetic biology has been generally accepted as the engineering of biology: the rational and systematic synthesis of complex, biological systems, which display functions that do not exist in nature. This engineering perspective may target any levels of the hierarchy of biological structures: individual molecules, whole cells, tissues, and organisms.[33] For example, the Glowing Plant project intends to grow the arabidopsis, or rose, plant with a bioluminescent gene naturally occurring in Fireflies.[34]

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.[35] 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.[15]

Bioinformatics is another popular target for do-it-yourself biology research. 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.

Biopunk art[edit]

Self-described "transgenic artist" Eduardo Kac uses biotechnology and genetics to create works that both utilise and critique scientific techniques. In one of his works, Alba, Kac collaborated with a French laboratory to procure a green-fluorescent rabbit: a rabbit implanted with a green fluorescent protein gene from a type of jellyfish in order for the rabbit to fluoresce green under ultraviolet light.[5] The members of the Critical Art Ensemble have written books and staged multimedia performance interventions around this issue, including The Flesh Machine (focusing on in vitro fertilisation, surveillance of the body, and liberal eugenics) and Cult of the New Eve(In order to analyze how in their words "Science is the institution of authority regarding the production of knowledge, and tends to replace this particular social function of conventional Christianity in the west[36]) Contributors to Biotech Hobbyist Magazine have written extensively on the field.[37]

Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an information artist and bio-hacker who uses DNA as a starting point for creating lifelike, computer-generated, 3-D portraits.[38][39]

Criticism and concerns[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, involving 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.[14] The arrest and prosecution of some members for their work with harmless microbes, such as artivist Steve Kurtz, has been denounced as political repression by critics who argue the U.S. government has used post-9/11 anti-terrorism powers to intimidate artists and others who use their art to criticize society.[40]

As regulations are non-existent within this field, the possibility of pathological organisms being created and released unintentionally or intentionally by bio-hackers has become a matter of concern, for example, in the spirit of the re-creation of the 1917 flu virus by Armed Forces Institute of Pathology researchers in 2005.[41] In the US the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate has worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to convene a series of meetings to discuss biosecurity, which have included discussions of amateur biologists and ways to manage the risks to society it poses.[42][43]:8.16 At the National Institutes of Health, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity[44] leads efforts to educate the public on "dual use research of concern", for example with websites like "Science Safety Security".[45] In 2011, DIYbio organized conferences to attempt to create codes of ethics for biohackers.[46]

Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group, is a critic of biohacking who argues that—using a laptop computer, published gene sequence information, and mail-order synthetic DNA—just about anyone has the potential to construct genes or entire genomes from scratch (including those of the lethal pathogens) in the near-future.[citation needed] A 2007 ETC Group report warns that the danger of this development is not just bio-terror, but "bio-error".[47]

While no DIYbio project to date has involved harmful agents,[citation needed] the fear remains in the minds of both regulators and laypersons. However, 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.

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.[48] 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.[49] 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.[15]

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.[14] Communities of biohackers have also come together to create codes of ethics, with a focus on transparency, safety and peaceful purposes.[46]

Notable persons[edit]

  • Meredith L. Patterson, technologist and biohacker who has presented research with Dan Kamisky and Len Sassaman at many international security and hacker conferences.
  • Annalee Newitz is an American science and technology journalist who has written extensively on the biopunk and biohacking movements.
  • Ellen Jorgensen is a molecular biologist and co-founder of Genspace popular for her Ted Talk on Biohacking and her belief in public scientific education.[50]

Groups and organizations[edit]

  • DIYbio, "[...] an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety".[22]
  • BioBricks Foundation, public-benefit organization creating publicly accessible standardized biological parts based on ethical and sustainable models.[51]
  • Genspace, community based lab in Brooklyn, New York providing scientific education[52]
  • Counter Culture Labs: biohacking space in the East Bay (United States).
  • SyntechBio, Latin American Network of Biohacker Spaces [53]
  • UBiome, biotechnology startup company who offer microbiome sequencing to the public based in San Francisco, California.
  • Bricobio, Montreal's first BioTech Biohacker Space.
  • La Paillasse, Paris (France).[54]
  • London Biohackspace London (United Kingdom) Biohackspace
  • Hackteria, Open Source Biological Art, DIY Biology, Generic Lab Equipment
  • Univercité, Renens (Switzerland),[55] opened in 2014. It includes the Hackuarium laboratory.[56]
  • BioSpace Victoria British Columbia
  • Open Biolab Graz Austria (OLGA), Europe's first biosecurity level S1 licensed biohackerspace [57]
  • Biofoundry Australia, Australia's first biohacking space based in Sydney [58]


  1. ^ Baker, Pam (2011-05-05). "Playing God in Your Basement". Genome Alberta. Retrieved 2012-01-20. 
  2. ^ a b Greg Boustead (2008-12-11). "The Biohacking Hobbyist". Seed Magazine. Retrieved 2010-07-11. 
  3. ^ Wohlsen, Marcus (2011-04-14). Biopunk: Solving Biotech's Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages. Penguin. p. 96. ISBN 9781101476352. 
  4. ^ Michels, Spencer (2014-09-23). "What is biohacking and why should we care?". PBS NewsHour. Retrieved 2015-10-30. 
  5. ^ a b c Newitz, Annalee (2001). "Biopunk". Archived from the original on 2002-12-20. Retrieved 2007-01-26. 
  6. ^ a b c Meredith L. Patterson (2010-01-30). "A Biopunk Manifesto". "Outlaw Biology? Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio.". Retrieved 2012-11-30. 
  7. ^ Schmeink, Lars (2013-04-27). "Review of "Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life"". Retrieved 2015-10-26. 
  8. ^ "Forum: Roses are black, violets are green – The emergence of amateur genetic engineers". New Scientist. Retrieved 2015-10-25. 
  9. ^ Katz, J. S. (1990). "That which is not forbidden is Mandatory". Biotechnology Education (Pergamon Press) 4 (1). ISSN 0955-6621. 
  10. ^ Schrage, Michael (1988-01-31). "Playing God in your basement". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2015-10-25. 
  11. ^ Purifying DNA with Common Household Items
  12. ^ CodeCon 2005 abstract
  13. ^ Rob Carlson. "Splice It Yourself: Who needs a geneticist? Build your own DNA lab.". Wired. 
  14. ^ a b c Heidi Ledford (2010). "Garage biotech: Life hackers". Nature 467 (7316): 650–2. doi:10.1038/467650a. PMID 20930820. 
  15. ^ a b c "PBS News Hour". 31 Dec 2008. 
  16. ^ CodeCon 2009 Program
  17. ^ 2010 H+ Summit: Rise of the Citizen Scientist
  18. ^ Outlaw Biology Summit - UCLA,
  19. ^ Open Science Summit
  20. ^ a b "Rob Carlson on synthetic biology". The Economist. 
  21. ^ Pearce, Joshua M. 2012. "Building Research Equipment with Free, Open-Source Hardware." Science 337 (6100): 1303– access
  22. ^ a b c d "DIYBio Codes". DIYBio. 2011. Retrieved 2012-11-30. 
  23. ^ a b OpenWetWare Contributors. "Main Page". OpenWetWare. Retrieved 2012-11-30. 
  24. ^ Andrew S. Wiecek (2010-08-24). "Cheap PCR: new low cost machines challenge traditional designs". Biotechniques. 
  25. ^ "Your Personal PCR Machine". OpenPCR. 
  26. ^ "Pocket PCR for pennies". LavaAmp. 
  27. ^ Erin Biba (2011-08-19). "Genome at Home: Biohackers Build Their Own Labs". Wired Magazine. Retrieved 2012-11-30. 
  28. ^ Newitz, Annalee (2002). "Genome Liberation". Retrieved 2007-01-26. 
  29. ^ "BiOS". 
  30. ^ Tyson Anderson. "Darning Genes: Biology for the Homebody". h+. 
  31. ^ Rise of the Garage Genome Hackers, New Scientist
  32. ^
  33. ^ Synthetic Biology: Applying Engineering to Biology: Report of a NEST High Level Expert Group
  34. ^ Eunjung Cha, Ariana (3 October 2013). "Glowing plant project on Kickstarter sparks debate about regulation of DNA modification". The Washington Post. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  35. ^ "IGEM 2010". 
  36. ^ "Critical Art Ensemble". 
  37. ^ "Biotech Hobbyist Magazine". 
  38. ^ Jenkins, Mark (2013-09-18). "A 'Cyber' exhibit as timely as the news". Washington Post. p. E18. 
  39. ^ Krulwich, Robert (2013-06-28). "Artist plays detective: Can I reconstruct a face from a piece of hair?". NPR. Retrieved 7 August 2014. 
  40. ^ Scientist pleads guilty to mailing bacteria for 'bio-art'
  41. ^ "The 1918 flu virus is resurrected". Nature 437 (7060): 794–5. October 2005. doi:10.1038/437794a. PMID 16208326. 
  42. ^ Carl Zimmer for the New York Times. March 5, 2012 Amateurs Are New Fear in Creating Mutant Virus
  43. ^ Prepared by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in conjunction with the Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Bridging Science and Security for Biological Research: A Discussion about Dual Use Review and Oversight at Research Institutions Report of a Meeting September 13-14, 2012
  44. ^ NSABB Official Website
  45. ^ Science Safety Security official website
  46. ^ a b "The role of codes of conduct in the amateur biology community". Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  47. ^ ETC Group (January 2007). "Extreme Genetic Engineering: An Introduction to Synthetic Biology" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-09-28. 
  48. ^ "The Biohacking Hobbyist". Seed Magazine. 
  49. ^ "DIYbio/FAQ". 
  50. ^ "Speakers Ellen Jorgensen: Biologist and Community Science Advocate". Ted. TED Conferences LLC. Retrieved 3 December 2013. 
  51. ^ The BioBricks Foundation
  52. ^ Genspace
  53. ^ SyntechBio (page visited on 27 November 2015).
  54. ^ La Paillasse (page visited on 22 June 2014).
  55. ^ Univercité (page visited on 22 June 2014).
  56. ^ Hackuarium (page visited on 3 August 2014).
  57. ^
  58. ^

External links[edit]