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Do It Yourself Biology: The Rise of Biohacking

by Aakriti Jain

Opening science to everyone has great implications. It’s about combining forces, new kinds of innovative thinking, and exploring questions on your own time.

The roots of hacking come from the Old English word “haccian” which means, “to cut in pieces.” Today, hacking has taken a significantly different meaning in society; often, one hears about malevolent computer hackers or biohackers developing science-fiction-esque post-human beings. However, one of the largest contemporary biohacker movements, do-it-yourself biology, brings the term biohacker back to its roots. With its emphasis on open access, DIY biology is working on deconvoluting science, destroying the obsolete concept of a scientific elite and making it relevant and accessible for all. My interviews with Ellen Jorgensen of Genspace, an open lab based in New York City, and Thomas Landrain and Clément Epié of La Paillasse in Paris clearly showed that while DIYbio may have originally had an image problem, it has evolved into an innovative movement, especially with the advent of community-driven DIYbio-hackspaces.

Walking through one of the oldest streets in Paris recently, I found my way to La Paillasse, which means “the bench” in French. As I entered the space, I saw a few people making beer while others were grabbing drinks and getting ready for the main presentation of the evening. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming, with posters on all the walls highlighting different projects at La Paillasse or comically propagandizing open science. I was greeted by Landrain and Epié, and then given a tour of the labyrinth-like facility. Opened four years ago, La Paillasse has grown from a group of eight people who wanted to start an open lab in Paris to a large community of biohackers, some temporary and some permanent. They are working on a variety of projects, ranging from drone development to Arduino bioreactors and other more artistic projects, and are supported with over $200,000 worth of equipment. La Paillasse is one of many in the network of DIYbio-hackspaces around the world, helping bridge the gap between science and citizen.

One of the many posters seen at the La Paillasse open house. Many posters were like this, with a satirical tone, while others discussed the various projects at the space.

Other than proliferation of open science and a deep focus on bioethics and scientific responsibility, what almost all DIYbio-hackspaces have in common is a simple model: they represent an open space for scientists and citizens to come and work on any project they desire, as long as they can either secure funding from outside sources or convince the community space that their project is interesting and worthwhile. Of course, some spaces have more funding than others. The hackspaces also work on a membership system, which can vary depending on an individual’s involvement. The membership fees go towards buying general lab supplies and keeping the space running as a whole.

Many bio-hackspaces also act as pre-incubators, allowing biotech entrepreneurs to do early proof of concept experiments or develop a prototype. This is especially important due to the inherent paradox between the need for an idea versus that for a prototype in order to gain funding for any entrepreneurial endeavor. While there may be a small shift in start-up culture for funding groups of people for their skills and expertise as opposed to fully developed prototypes, this shift is fairly new and localized in few locations in the world. In general, in order to get good funding for a new venture, it is recommended to have a prototype of your project, and this is impossible in the biotech field without a working lab. Therefore, building a prototype has been an impossible goal for citizens, including those with scientific backgrounds, with ideas but no access to labs. DIYbio-hackspaces work to close this gap between the idea and the prototype.

One of the rooms in the La Paillasse open space. This particular room is used for a project making 3D body scans for clothing and other applications.

Beyond this foundation, the focus of any given lab changes based on the community that occupies the space. For example, Genspace is far more art-centric, being located in an art-focused area like Brooklyn. The group at Genspace is involved in providing tutorials for citizens, as well as partnering with other organizations to hold workshops for children and adults alike. Attendees are interested in learning a range of topics, from biotechnology crash-courses to introduction to synthetic biology. On the other hand, La Paillasse puts a larger focus on more start-up worthy ideas, due to their goals of improving entrepreneurship in France.

This is not to say that they are not open to ideas that may be on the periphery of their primary focus, though. Genspace has a number of biotech entrepreneurs, as well as amateurs in science who do not have the access to a lab space. Similarly, there is a group at La Paillasse working on a more artistic project in which they are trying to grow their own ink. In the words of Jorgensen, each space is “different. They’re all different people. They’re all individual. I don’t know how to describe how Genspace is different…in a lot of ways, people use us as a model, so we can’t be too different from them.” Even though each space has subtly unique characteristics, they all place an emphasis on collaboration, community organization and creativity.

Another room in La Paillasse. The plates pictured here contain ink-producing bacteria. In the background is the beginning of an Arduino-based bioreactor.

Opening science to everyone has great implications. For one, it broadens the scope of interdisciplinary studies. It’s not just about studying physics or biology, but rather combining forces: experiencing how the artist or electrical engineer’s perspective can add to a biology experiment. It opens the possibility for a whole array of different projects that allow for innovative thinking. The movement towards open science is, in a way, also an experiment. According to Jorgensen, “I didn’t really go out to do this; it’s something that just kind of happened to me…people expected us to do great things, rather than us going out and saying we wanted to do great things.” The Genspace story is one that rings true for the entire DIYbio movement — one isn’t limited by the way academic and corporate research works, but rather is allowed to explore their small questions in their own time. It may just be that something great comes out of this small-scale exploration.

Not only that, but open, community scientific projects allow for faster progress. There are no details hidden behind the closed doors of corporations or expensive scientific journals. Everything is public property, allowing for an inherent system of checks and balances. With the existence of DIYbio-hackspaces, science is in the hands of the public as opposed to an exclusive club of individuals.

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