At Labster we believe that everyone should be able to learn and do biology. It’s especially exciting when people bring their passion for biology outside the classroom/lab. In addition to our field of virtual labs, this takes many forms, like Do-It-Yourself Biology, a movement that encourages biologists and explorers to do science without boundaries.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, where we have our headquarters, we are witness to a burgeoning DIY Bio scene. However, DIY Bio is far from unanimously accepted, because it has ethical implications. In this blog post, using the examples of the ways Copenhageners do biology themselves, we’ll walk you through the pros and cons of the ethical debate surrounding this field.
DIY Bio: Dog Poo Detector or Biosecurity Threat?
Perhaps you’ve seen Ellen Jorgensen’s TED talk, where she advocates for DIY Bio at the individual, local, and community level. She describes the movement as one that “advocates making biotechnology accessible to everyone, not just scientists and people in government labs. The idea is that if you open up the science and you allow diverse groups to participate, it could really stimulate innovation.”
She gives the cute example of a journalist in Germany who wanted to see which of his neighbor’s dogs was leaving feces on his street. So he threw tennis balls to each of them, collected and analyzed the saliva and then confronted the owner. He did this using DNA profiling, the same technique that Labster’s CSI lab uses in the context of a murder mystery.
But DIY Bio may not be this innocent. The FBI is aware of the threat of ‘biohackers’ potentially experimenting with pathogens and engaging in bioterrorism. They’ve therefore taken a proactive approach, asking participants to monitor their own community members for suspicious behaviors. Yet, as Jorgensen reiterates, the press and governmental organizations tend to focus on the dangers, instead of on DIY Bio’s democratic dedication to knowledge-spreading.
Here in Copenhagen, the DIY Bio community BiologiGaragen is aware of this dangerous potential, but recognizes that DIY Bio is rather about harnessing the power to educate anyone and everyone about biology (while still observing strict safety regulations). In their words, “we do this by bringing people together for collaboration, lectures, self-help and mutual inspiration in a physical open laboratory and by online knowledge sharing.”
Thanks to this initiative, BiologiGaragen has recently been awarded financial support from pharmaceutical company Novozymes to develop and improve their biohacker lab space Labitat. The fact that a multimillion-dollar company is investing in biotech and innovation at the community level shows that there is indeed an important potential for positive collaboration between big research-based synthetic biology and the individual creativity of citizens. Citizen science of this sort particularly benefits from crowdsourcing, the internet, and especially the gamification of science – all of which we at Labster heavily advocate!
DIY Synthetic Biology
If DIY Bio groups are working on manipulating biological organisms, their work can be seen as Frankenstein-like: navigating the line between living thing and machine.
This was the concern of the Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) Copenhagen team in 2011. They entered the competition with a “CyperMan,” genetically engineered E. coli bacteria that can remove dangerous hormones from drinking water and thus purge our farmlands of devastating fungi.
Similarly, Labster founder Mads Bonde won a gold medal with his iGEM 2009 team, when they designed and constructed a new biobrick assembly standard for inserting PCR fragments. A biobrick is a sequence of DNA grouped by structure and function. Biobricks illuminate how principles of engineering are being applied to synthetic biology; they codify and standardize DNA so it can be inserted in living cells.
As with any synthetic biology project, ethics were at stake in both these labs. One of the central questions for the 2011 team was, “how much genetic material one could remove or introduce, before the organism was changed so much that it would have changed substantial characteristics to be either a new organism or a biological machine?” This is a critical debate for all synthetic biologists who design, manipulate, or otherwise engineer biological life forms. Furthermore, they raise the question, what does being alive mean?
If you’re looking to do some DIY Biology, check out http://diybio.org/ for groups in your area.