18 December 2015

What is Do-It-Yourself Biology?

December 18, 2015 | ProgressTH Talk of DNA and biotechnology generally conjures up images of movie monsters or talk of large agricultural companies that use genetic engineering to modify organisms (GMOs). And for the longest time to ordinary people, biotechnology really was something they could only see in fiction or in practice in the hands of large, well-funded corporations and institutions. 

F.Lab in Bangkok, Thailand is seeking to use DNA barcoding to identify, protect, and promote organic varieties of rice in Thailand. It uses its own DIY lab equipment 3D printed and assembled at local makerspace, Maker Zoo.  

But like computers, which also started out as an inaccessible curiosity to regular people, biotechnology is finally making its way into the hands of a much larger community.

Enter DIYbio 

That's where the DIYbio movement comes in. DIYbio is the local use of the tools and techniques of biotechnology by regular people who may not be trained scientists, but have an interest in biotechnology nonetheless.

In the early days of the personal computer, not only did grassroots hands-on communities working with IT help make the technology more accessible to regular people, they in fact helped drive the technology by leaps and bounds never possible among the universities, corporations, and governments monopolizing computers at that time.

Likewise, biotech among the DIYbio community is helping inform regular people about what this technology can and cannot do, and providing an increasing number of tools for the public to use to inquire into and manipulate the world of biology. 

Biotechnology, like computers, is powerful. Fears that it can be abused are not unfounded. However, just like with computers, it seems the more people that have access to such technology, the more people that are informed and prepared to meet the challenges of its inevitable abuse. 

What Can DIYbio Do? 

For now, DIYbio serves as a starting point for people interested in biology, genetics, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and using genetics to examine and better understand the living world around them. At most DIYbio community labs, the tools to genetically identify organic material are available. With this, communities can spot check the quality of food they eat or species living in and around their communities.

Through a process called "DNA barcoding," species can be identified quickly and cheaply. The DNA Learning Center in New York, USA, has done several DNA barcoding projects with schools in the New York City area. The projects give a small sample of the potential DNA barcoding has. 

In the future, as more tools become available to community labs, tracking diseases, managing natural resources, and even applications regarding human health may come within reach. By getting involved today, we ensure our communities build a strong foundation to leverage this  technology as it becomes increasingly more available, and more powerful. 

Where Can you Go to Get Into DIYbio?

Finding a DIYbio lab couldn't be easier! DIYbio.org has a global list of labs to serve as a starting point. Using your favorite Internet search engine, you can simply type in your general location and "DIYbio" and you can probably find a lab that way as well.

And if you don't have a lab, there are plenty of resources available online to help you start one of your own. There are collections of DIYbio equipment (and here) that you can download the files and instructions to build for free, and at your local makerspace, fabricate your own lab yourself.

Makerspaces and community labs actually share a lot in common, and so it is no surprise that many labs around the world got their start in a makerspace. DIYbio lab GenSpace started in NYC Resistor, the same makerspace that the MakerBot 3D printer was first developed in. Bangkok-based F.Lab got its start in Maker Zoo, a nearby makerspace. Gaudi Labs in Switzerland fabricated much of its equipment in an MIT-affiliated FabLab.

The bottom line is biotechnology is powerful, and can be a bit scary. But the scariest thing of all is letting a small group of people who do not share your same best interests completely monopolize it and use it for their own ends. By opening this technology up to everyone, the playing field is leveled, and the rest of us will finally have a chance to not only have a say, but also have a go at directing the future of this powerful technology.

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