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Playing Around with Genes in Your Spare Time

The Emerging Trend of DIY Biotechnology



Fluorescent Bacteria

Carlos de Paz via flikr

Unlike with hi-tech, the do-it-yourself (DIY) segment was missing from the biotechnology revolution. With sights on new drugs and agricultural improvements, large companies and venture capitalist jumped right into biotech from the very beginning. Gene jockeys became overnight entrepreneurs and academic investigators transitioned to focused start-ups or large corporations almost overnight. Groups of enthusiasts just fiddling around with genes and microbes during nights and weekends for the fun of it were largely lacking. However, that situation has changed in the last few years as cohorts of biohackers have begun setting up labs in their homes and local communities.

Biotech Solutions for Everyday Problems

There are all kinds of practical applications for enterprising bioengineers. For instance, bacteria could be designed to change to a certain color when they sense chemicals or toxins in the environment. How about making plants that grow naturally into conveniently useable shapes for construction or other assemblies? Plant might also be engineered to be responsive to magnetic fields so they avoid growing around electrical wires.

More ambitious projects might design new organs. There's at least one person is trying to work out how to make pigeons that defecate soap instead of urea. It would help keep statues in parks a lot cleaner.

Also, not all biotech projects involve manipulating organisms either. For example, DNA testing is being used to enforce rules about curbing dogs in managed communities. Offending dogs are identified based on the DNA isolated from their feces.

Some folks are even making cheese from their personal bacteria—toe-jam cheddar maybe? What about using human DNA to produce a portrait of what someone looks like? It's not feasible yet but it will likely be sometime soon.

Actually most of these examples haven't been realized yet, but they are mostly doable with the current state of art. Biotechnology offers a broad range of unique capabilities that just aren't available with other technologies. Now that smart innovative people have started applying the knowledge and tools obtained in this field over the last half a century, all sorts of new curiosities and marvels will follow. And, of course, we might see a few new critters too.

Engineering Living Machines

Living things are essentially complicated machines. They have programmable software in the form of DNA, hundreds of thousands of nanodevices made from proteins, RNA, and metabolites, and, in many cases, they just need light, water, and air to run. With a little engineering, they can be adapted to perform all sorts of useful functions. Until recently, though, we haven't known enough about intricacies of how living things function or had the right tools to effectively engineer them. But that time has past.

In the last 30 years or so increasingly sophisticated tools to manipulate the basic software of living things—DNA—have been developed. From the discovery of restriction enzymes in the 1970s to the much more recent CRISPRs technology, DNA can be sliced and spliced in a plethora of ways to delete, add, and alter genes. This single capability really revolutionized the biological sciences in the past few decades.

With these DNA manipulation tools, and techniques such as high-throughput DNA sequencing, x-ray crystallography, high-pressure-chromatography, and advanced imaging, investigators have been able to analyze the interactions that produce living things on a molecular level. As a result, science is finally understanding how chemistry produces life. While there's still vast unknown expanses in our knowledge, enough of the pieces have fallen into place to make it a more or less routine proposition to engineer bacteria and other organisms in all sorts of ways. As a result, a DIY biotech has become a possibility.

The Weekend Biohacker

Biological engineering isn't a particularly expensive endeavor. However, unlike most hi-tech projects, the standard tools and instruments needed for biotinkering are not available in a hardware store or "biotech" shop down the street. A bit of an infrastructure goes a long way toward helping DIY biotechnologists move their projects along.

Several community organizations have sprung up in the last few years to accommodate this growing niche. For example, Biocurious in the Silicon Valley, Biohackers in Los Angeles, and GenSpace in New York City, and a list of similar organization worldwide provide lab space for the individual biotechnologist and host a range of community biotech projects.

There are also resources for the stay-at-home biohacker, and the Citizen Science Quarterly provides an informal journal for the lone investigator to document and disseminate successful projects and discoveries.

Also, as with any sort of engineering hobby, some basic pieces, parts, and modules are needed. To this end, iGem who organizes annual competitions for innovative synthetic biology projects, has assembled a catalog of standardized biological parts.

Financial Support for Biotech Projects

Who's paying for all this work? Obviously, many projects may be run on a shoestring budget, but some may require a more substantial fiscal tether. In this case, the community's researchers turn to populist funding—crowdsourcing.

In its effort to create a bioluminescent houseplant—the Glowing Plant project—has generated almost half a million dollars. Of course, there was the incentive that contributors would receive the resulting bioengineered seeds to grow their own glowing plant, but the results do suggest there is a lot of interest to support these sort of projects.


Brain tumor paint is another more noteworthy example of crowding funding biomedical research development. Frustrated by his inability to get funding to develop a chemical that identifies cancerous brain tumor cells to help surgeons more precisely cut out the diseased tissue without removing surrounding healthy tissue, James Olson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital, asked families of brain tumor patients for help to fund the project. The strategy worked. The result is Brain Paint.

Using New Technology to Make Life Easier

As science understands better how biological systems function and more tools become available for manipulating the components of life, more people have the access to pursue their own creative ideas of what can be done with the technology. It's a common development with any new technology. It is simply a sign that that scientific disciplines of genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, and genomics are maturing. Increasingly, discoveries in these research areas produce knowledge that can be applied on a practical level to address everyday problems.

Of course, this transition from basic to applied science and engineering is not without critics. Most focus on the safety concerns resulting from bad judgment to possible misuse for bioterrorism. As a result, there are some calls for more regulation. However, it is hard to image what sort of regulations could be imposed to stop people from manipulating living organisms. After all, they have been doing it for thousands of years in one way or another to make beer and bread, create vegetable and flower hybrids, and generate new breeds of cats and dogs.

The evidence from a recent survey of the DIY biotech movement is that most of the practitioners are working in community laboratories and following standard of practice safety guidelines. Of course, there are always a few fringe elements in any group that like to push the limits, such as the individual that recently implanted a computer chip the size of cell phone in his arm to transmit real-time information about his vital sign. However, access to biotechnology resources isn't really different than access to poisons, firearms, or automobiles for that matter. Sure, some people use fertilizer to make bombs, but most just fertilize their gardens. Maybe some regulation for DIY biotech would prudent but, for the most part, the movement isn't something to be afraid of.

Without a doubt, it is a good thing that biotechnology is moving out into the streets from the hallowed halls of research institutions and the glided labs of pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations. It means more development, more innovation, and more solutions. Biotech is the new hi-tech, the revolutionary technology of the 21st century. It will profoundly change our lives as hi-tech has over the past century. Innovation with this technology is something to encourage. It's not as if we could stop it anyway.

(Posted: November, 27, 2013)

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