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The World of DIY Bio


In the past, we may have used "Do-It-Yourself Biology" to describe hobbies for people who liked nature. Perhaps that's still true, but a new group of enthusiasts has appeared on the scene. Raised on gel electrophoresis and high-school labs with GFP-cloning kits, this generation wants a more hands-on approach. They're not content with yesterday's pursuits like bird watching, ant farming, and germinating seeds in a glass dish. Nor are they strictly biologists; many DIYbio members, as they're known, are engineers and programmers, and they're determined to do biology in a new way and change the world.

I love the excitement. I still remember the tingly feeling the first time I cloned a piece of DNA. From the moment the tiny drop of ligase fell in the tube to the moment I isolated DNA from a white colony in a sea of blue bacteria, looked at the gel, and knew for certain that I'd constructed a new plasmid, I was hooked. This probably sounds incredibly geeky, but I even bought my own copies of Old and Primrose's Principles of Gene Manipulation and Maniatis's Molecular Cloning, and read them, cover to cover, after work on warm summer nights. Hearing that enthusiastic amateurs are trying to build bacterial sensors in their kitchens rekindled that sense of excitement. I had to know more.

As an organization, DIYbio is still new and rapidly growing. Mackenzie Cowell started DIYbio in early 2008 after completing an undergraduate biology degree and working with the International Genetically Engineered Machine group at MIT. In recent months, the membership has swelled to more than 540, with local chapters springing up throughout the United States, Canada, and the UK.

It's a curious mix. I joined the Seattle DIYbio group hoping to find volunteers to help me with some DIY bioinformatics projects. Instead, I found that most of the members want to do genetic engineering. They are also firmly convinced that the philosophies of the open-source software movement will provide great benefits to the world once they're applied to amateur biotechnology.

Talking with Jonathan Cline, DIYbio project manager and real-life electrical engineer in San Francisco, gave me some insights into the DIYbio philosophy. I learned that the group, as a whole, is very into the notion of building things cheaply and reducing costs, sharing information and tools, and finding ways for hobbyists to run experiments and contribute data back to a public database. Cline's dream scenario would be to have standardized biological parts with predictable behaviors so that the parts could be combined and the cell would behave as programmed in an expected way. He described an example of putting computational logic into a cell with a memory circuit. The circuit would have multiple promoters, two genes for different shades of green fluorescent protein, and an amplifier that would create a feedback loop. Bacteria would turn green in response to a stimulus and after some period of time they would switch to producing the other color of GFP and become red.

In another scenario, a person with a vitamin deficiency might swallow a pill containing bacteria that would make the vitamin. When the bacteria reach the kidneys, a pH sensor would cause the bacteria to self-destruct. I spent many months working to make bacteria produce large quantities of certain proteins at a command that I sent by adding a chemical signal. Still, the idea of treating bacteria like programmable robots is new to me, especially when it's clear that some of these programmers know very little about their biological operating system.

Some of the philosophical concepts are puzzling as well. I've spent many years working with groups that are trying to bring science education to the public, so it was disconcerting to hear that Cline and some of the other DIYbio folks are convinced that biology information is intentionally locked up somewhere and hidden away. Yes, it's true that some journal articles require subscriptions, but to me this doesn't seem quite so diabolical. Lecture notes for many undergraduate courses are online and easy to find. I tried to point out that NCBI has searchable textbooks and that you can buy a used copy of Old and Primrose for less than $10 on Amazon, but Cline wasn't listening.

To me, the DIYbio logic that teaching people how to build their own gel boxes will necessarily make science cheaper is not very compelling. The highest costs in my budgets are always salaries, not gel boxes. Fortunately, DIYbio hobbyists will work for free, since it's clear that they're going to need a lot of time to work out the bugs and learn the biology. Recently, one of the poster projects for the group, an effort to make melamine-detecting bacteria, suffered a setback because the people involved in the project were unaware that certain plasmids can only replicate in certain groups of bacteria. That's right — you can't just put an E. coli plasmid in Lactobacillus and assume that it will work. It's hard to ignore the learning curve, no matter what we'd like to think.

If I sound a bit skeptical about the chances that the DIYers will accomplish anything useful, it's not because I think the problems are truly intractable. I'm skeptical because I know biology is not as predictable as the engineers like to imagine. A culture with a billion bacteria is a culture of 100 billion individuals who will all behave a little differently depending on the time of day and the food that they're given. In a chemostat, sure, things are a little different, but no one is talking yet about chemostat-building at home. I'm also skeptical because I know from experience that this kind of work takes time and patience. I suspect that if the DIYbio project makes a contribution, it may be because it's caught the imagination of people like me, professionals who are jumping in to voluntarily offer advice and enjoy the enthusiasm from the sidelines.

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Sandra Porter, PhD, is the director of education at Geospiza. Her blog is located at