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The DIYbio Movement

Do-it-yourself biology — DIYbio as it's known among the hip — is so hot right now. You've heard about it, right?

It's the scrappy little movement that enables scientists without labs and curious amateurs to conduct research using the building blocks of life in the garage (or, more often than not, in a communal lab space).

You've also heard how it is enabling weekend bioterrorists, disaffected teens, and inventive supervillians to use synthetic biology tools to whip up recipes of synthetic super viruses as easy as grandma's ragout sauce.

It's only a matter of time until this is the reality, isn't it?

Probably not, according to a new report called "Seven Myths and Realities about Do-It-Yourself Biology."

Most of the fears about DIYbio are based on a "miscomprehension about the community's ability to wield and manipulate life," says the survey ,which was conducted by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Such worries are largely a product of a lack of information about the movement, which is growing and changing and has not been well surveyed, the group found.

The survey of 305 DIYers found that many of them work in multiple spaces, with 46 percent working at a community lab, 35 percent at hackerspaces, 28 percent at academic, corporate, or government labs, and 26 percent at home.

This finding goes against the 'myth' that most DIYers work in anonymously and in solitude. The survey found that only 8 percent of respondents work exclusively at home labs.

The project says it is a myth that DIYers are capable of unleashing a deadly epidemic.

"The community survey suggests that, far from developing novel pathogens, which would require the skill set of a seasoned virologist and access to pathogens, most DIYers are still learning basic biotechnology," it says.

DIYers also are not averse to oversight or ethical standards, the survey found. So far, they have largely been left out of conversations about government oversight concerning things like dangerous pathogens, though they do lack a formalized checking system. However, the survey found, in part because most of them work in shared spaces, there are informal checks that exclude the use of animals or pathogens.

Lastly, group labs are not necessarily going to become havens for bioterrorists, the report says, as DIY community labs have strict rules about access. At Brooklyn's Genspace, for example, lab community directors evaluate new members and project safety, and consult with a safety committee.

The Synthetic Biology Project report also lays out several policy proposals and recommendations for ways to nurture DIYbio and to keep it safe. Education programs should be fostered, academic and corporate partners should get engaged, benchmarks and risk limits should be set, and governments should fund networks of community labs, the report says.