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Hack the Planet!

by Steven Burgess
Hackathons are ‘hacking’ ‘marathons’, and traditionally bring people together to try and solve a defined problem in the field of software development over a period of several days. The term first came in to use in 1999 and hackathons are now widespread, they have even been proposed as a great way for scientists to work on new ideas, form collaborations and forward their careers.
However, software problems are not the only issues to be tackled by hackathons; next week the first ‘DIYBio style’ biohackathon will convene in Cambridge, UK funded by the Cambridge Synthetic Biology Research Initiative. We will be covering the event via twitter, but to find out more I went to talk to the organiser  Thomas Meany.

SJB: Can you tell us about your background, and how you came to be involved? 
TM: I’m originally trained as a physicist and recently joined the Haseloff SynBio Lab in Cambridge. We are a highly interdisciplinary lab with a grand vision of learning how cells differentiate and make stuff. The lab is very diverse and it is not at all weird to have a background in computer science or physics. It was very encouraging to see challenges in biology that I thought I might be able to help solve. For instance, automation and reproducibility by incorporating low volume lab-on-a-chip devices has enormous potential.
However, there is no clear definition of synbio or standard route to entry apart from initiatives like the iGEM competition. This is a chance for people from all walks of life to spend a short period of time working on an interdisciplinary team to help them decide how they could fit into the synbio ecosystem.
SJB: Have you learnt anything by switching fields?
TM: I have learned to embrace complexity!
SJB: Lol, people may have heard of the term ‘hackathon’ before, but what is a ‘biohackathon’?
TM: Great question! The honest answer is we don’t know yet! What we hope it will be is a unique opportunity to bring together software, hardware and ‘bioware’ for the first time to help accelerate problem solving in synthetic biology.
SJB: So what will it involve?
TM: The event is a marathon 72 hour competition fueled by caffeine and passion with a goal of solving the biggest problems in biology! During the event teams will receive intense mentorship from our company advisors, both startups and established businesses.

After an exhausting three days ten teams will pitch their solutions at the Technology Venture Conference to a 500 strong crowd of investors, entrepreneurs and academics. Winners take £1500 cash, investment, mentorship and a place on the Judge Business School’s Accelerate Cambridge.


SJB: What challenge will the teams be addressing?

TM: The goal of this event is to try to automate biology to improve reproducibility and efficiency. Teams will be working on a range of projects centred around ‘open bioware’. Our sponsor Synthace is building a programming language for biology, Antha. They are bringing a whole range of open source hardware like liquid handling robots, PCRs and plate readers to help teams think of ways we can make biology less about manually moving liquid samples and more about reproducibility.


OpenTrons low cost liquid handling robot.
SJB: The competitors are encouraged to come up with a commercial pitch, why is this?
TM: We have included a pitch because we wanted people to think about real solutions, and we have engaged with a range of startups to help us understand how participants can take their ideas forward.
SJB: Who is taking part?
TM: Our 10 teams each contain 5 members and at least one has a biological background and another has programming experience. Otherwise we have skill sets such as business/finance, economics, law, engineering, physics, art and design and more!. Approximately half of our participants are postgraduate (masters/PhD), while another quarter are undergraduate and the rest are professionals in industry or startups. About half the participants are from Cambridge/London while the other half are from all across the UK and some international as well. We even have an team of American entrepreneurs (Spira) joining us from Indiebio EU in Cork, Ireland.
AFS Year 12 students from schools in Belfast and London work together to detect viruses in the Department of Plant Sciences teaching laboratory John Carr
Department of Plant Sciences Teaching Lab. Source:
SJB: Why do a biohackathon now?
TM: The past few years has seen the growth of the DIYBio movement, where anyone can get involved in biological engineering. Simultaneously there have been advances in low cost manufacturing methods, such as 3D printing, and in synthetic biology which is making biological engineering quicker and easier. All these factors are coming together to make it possible to start to address biological questions in the short time period.
SJB: Thanks Tom, I’m excited to see how it goes! Out of curiosity I have one final question – given your background in physics, what do you think needs to be done to make it possible to engineer biology?
TM: I think that very boring things need to be done. The characterisation of individual DNA “parts” in isolation and across a range of environmental conditions must be done. Detailed analysis should be completed with parts in combination to assess their degree of orthogonality. This also needs to incorporate modelling at multiple levels of abstraction. Finally the parts must be available not as biological parts but as components with specification sheets detailing their operating ranges. These components may be ultimately formed of numerous individual DNA parts all forming a circuit with the user having little or no knowledge of the underlying biological process.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed in this piece are private and not representative of PLOS. The event is funded by the Cambridge SRI which has funded a project run by the interviewer, who is also involved in offering technical expertise to participants of the biohackathon. 
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