Imagine: Salmonella breaks out, people go mad, hundreds become ill. You, alone in your basement, have all the tools to design a simple biological test that determines the presence of Salmonella bacteria in your food; the tools to solve this particular problem, excluding the fancier machines already present in your laboratory, cost no more than $5. Problem—solved. For you, at least. Distribution might be a little more difficult; helping others is dependent on your ability to go to the internet, post about your process, and provide others with the information they need to repeat the test. Potentially, dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, could protect themselves.
This is the power of do-it-yourself biology, the garage biology movement: less money, more knowledge, more change.
Bergen McMurray, co-founder of Seattle’s DIYbio space, HiveBio, expands on these ideas. “It’s taking the power of information out of the hands of the elite few and putting it in the hands of the individual,” she said. “I think that’s not only going to revolutionize bioscience, but education in general.”
Now that it’s cheaper to start a DIYbio laboratory than it is to develop an application, perhaps changing both bioscience and education is an achievable goal. HiveBio offers regular classes—from eyeball dissection to gel electrophoresis to introductory microscopy—to anyone who can pay a low fee for a few hours. They also host summer camps for both children interested in pursuing science and children with no experience whatsoever. With the help of grant money from various sources, they are increasingly able to provide more classes at lower prices. Their ideal? The ability to provide biological knowledge to anyone for free.
HiveBio began as two separate quests for the same thing. Katriona Guthrie-Honea, as a mere high schooler, couldn’t find any professional laboratory to let her conduct her own research despite the fact that she was more than competent. Similarly, Bergen McMurray, after a career change from art to neuroscience, couldn’t find places that rented space cheaply enough for her to further explore biological research. Together, they created HiveBio. HiveBio now provides laboratory equipment for anyone who wants it.
“Access to spaces like this, I think, is going to revolutionize the way that medicine works because it’s going to give people the information they need to make decisions like [genome sequencing],” McMurray said. What exactly does a space like HiveBio look like? Not unlike a real laboratory: machinery clustered on counters, glassware arrayed on shelves, a few brains soaking in some chemicals on a counter. Perhaps a bit more cluttered than your average laboratory, with its limited space, and a bit more friendly, with its pamphlets and lending library, but not dissimilar. Some of the chemicals may be technically expired, but that doesn’t stop professional laboratories, either.
Other DIYbio spaces include New York’s GenSpace, London Biohackspace, and San Francisco’s BioBridge. Each of these came to fruition in their own ways. Similar laboratories, each with their own individual research interests and political or scientific goals, can be found across the world.
As is the case with most of these spaces, the research capacities of a space like HiveBio are minimal, but not a lot is necessary to perform biological research these days. The average high school student in an AP Biology class learns to conduct many of the procedures used in professional laboratories.You can buy DNA online for $0.23 per base pair. If you purchase some DNA and can use Google and a textbook to figure out gene splicing (also taught in AP Biology), you can absolutely genetically engineer a test that checks for the Salmonella in your food purchases or determine whether or not you have a particular gene in your own body. Low access to expensive equipment creates the primary barrier to biological research. Still, a one-person laboratory is purchasable on eBay for a few thousand dollars. A decently high quality microscope can be fashioned by combining an iPhone camera with a basic lens, some wood, and a few screws (about $10 of materials, maximum). With support from individual donors and the private sector, community laboratories are even more achievable.
Some hackers believe DIYbio might be able to help end the ebola crisis. Others hope it hails a biotechnology revolution of a sort more dramatic than what McMurray imagines. Some fear it may enable bioterrorism.
Critics say, not likely. So what can DIYbio do?
It has produced genetically engineered plants that glow in the dark, cheap genetic tests, and a handful of minor biological discoveries. This may not sound like much. Strictly speaking about research and innovation, DIYbio really allows scientists to “increase the tinkerability” of biology. Tony Stark’s laboratory, superimposed over some creaky basement beneath the city streets, is not the science fiction revolution we might imagine. It is, however, a new way of doing things. McMurray explained that traditional science is done by scientists trained in separate disciplines to adhere to strict modes of thought. A DIYbio space opens up places for scientists to work together and devise solutions that would otherwise never have occurred to them.
But there are larger ideals to consider. HiveBio’s real goal, McMurray said, is to “demystify science. Fight the idea that ‘oh, science is so hard, you have to go through years of schooling before you can understand it.’ People give up before they even start.” DIYbio can also provide knowledge to communities that wouldn’t otherwise access it; change not just the way our highly trained professionals, but also children and communities, think about science; and transform the way the world of biotechnology works at its structural core.
In St. Louis, we have no DIYbio laboratory. Our public schools, meanwhile, struggle significantly; over the years, they have lost accreditation and fought to regain it. Many children could use more places to use science. St. Louis has biotechnology and industry. St. Louis has students. St. Louis has scientists. Perhaps it should be said instead: we have no DIYbio yet.