Biohacking and the brave new world of D.I.Y. science
At first glance, the Melbourne BIOhack launch on March 2 could have been any gathering of young adults, but closer inspection reveals a diverse group with a shared vision. The two speakers on the day were William Spatari, a passionate biohacker waving an NFC chip in one hand and a magnet in the other, and Ken Seidenman, a patent attorney with a particular passion for science startups. Mingling afterwards revealed science enthusiasts, IT specialists, researchers, students – people from all walks of life who simply share the passion of discovery.
BIOhack was conceived as a shared space where anyone can walk in and learn about the world around them. Akin to artists sharing studio space, BIOhack intends to facilitate citizen science; anyone can learn the ropes, do an experiment, and access a government-approved space in which to do it. This do-it-yourself brand of scientific enquiry is popularly known as biohacking.
People involved learn from each other, share ideas, and brainstorm to solve problems they are interested in, and it is this community aspect that is key to the whole concept. BIOhack doesn’t have a health and safety department, unlike a university or research laboratory where safety protocols must be strictly adhered to. Instead, it relies to an extent on the transparency of the community to prevent dangerous situations from occurring.
Science – particularly biology and genetics – is becoming more accessible to the public. The commercial availability of DNA sequencing from companies like 23andme and deCODE genetics allows anybody to look into their own genome for a fee, and genetic tests are becoming increasingly routine. The last decade has seen a rise in the number of groups supporting community science and citizen scientists such as DIYbio, a movement that started in 2008 and has spread across the USA and Europe, and the BioBlitz campaign run by Melbourne City Council between October 31 and November 15 last year.
The main concern about citizen science has always been safety. BioBlitz is focussed on the ecology surrounding Melbourne and only has risks associated with living in Melbourne and interacting with the animals already present. Groups wanting to investigate molecular biology potentially expose themselves to much higher risk. To help manage this, DIYbio not only facilitates experiments and hardware, but also has an “ask a biosafety expert” section on their website, so all your citizen science can be done safely.
This safety aspect limits the amount of science you can do in your garden shed, especially when it comes to biology. While it would be excellent to create and plant your own glowing petunias, or to use your knowledge of genetic engineering to produce marrows that thrive in acidic soils, there are laws in Australia that mean that if you do, you’ll probably get arrested under the Gene Technologies Act 2000. This is a key stumbling block for just anybody using the wonders of genetic engineering to solve problems.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) does exactly this. It’s a competition where university-based teams compete to develop their own genetically modified organism (GMO) from a standard kit of building blocks, and a diverse range of solutions for an equally diverse range of problems are developed each year. The iGEM has teams across Australasia, Latin America, North America, and Europe, including one team from Sydney’s Macquarie University.
There’s also the possibility to transform your innovation into a business after competing in the iGEM, which several teams have done. The 2011 team from University of Washington went commercial with their diesel-synthesising E. coli, and the MIT team from 2004, the competition’s inaugural year, founded a company that excels in genetic engineering.
However, the iGEM still limits this problem-solving and possible entrepreneurship to a select group of individuals – in this case, undergraduate students at competing universities. BIOhack intends to remove this limitation, and pass science into the hands of the masses.
The small budgets associated with biohacking also have the potential to result in great innovation. Just as the iGEM’s limited number of building blocks have resulted in amazing GMOs, here too limitation can be the mother of innovation. Biohackers are unlikely to enjoy the funding available to commercial or academic laboratories, meaning that budding biohackers must carefully design experiments to minimise waste, and think outside the box when it comes to equipment – for instance, by repurposing a pressure cooker as an autoclave.
Last week’s BIOhack launch was the second stab at developing a biohacking space in Melbourne. The first attempt two years ago failed to take hold, with those involved citing a lack of momentum. This time, several members of the same group are working to develop a space that can meet the minimum requirements for a PC1 laboratory (the lowest physical containment level). They have support from the established BIOhack group in Sydney, and from an increasing number of laboratories around Melbourne.
Guests entering the launch were greeted by Andrew Gray, BIOhack’s friendly and enthusiastic driving force. Gray is the perfect person to be pushing this venture forward, with a wonderful appreciation for life, incredible drive, and a helpful degree of stubbornness. He was an engaging and welcoming host, and his energy seems boundless while he zips across Melbourne collecting laboratory equipment that would otherwise become landfill.
Gray’s interest in biology arose while undergoing an associates degree via correspondence while serving in Afghanistan. This inspired him to leave the military and pursue a science career in Australia, and he is currently undertaking an undergraduate degree at Monash University.
Gray’s summary of BIOhack perfectly encapsulates the hopeful and excited mood in the Melbourne community: “This isn’t about a lab, it’s about changing everything, and investing back in our people.”
[Header image: Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo from Martin Malthe.]