The Technium

DYI Garage Biotech


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One day, we knew, biotech would become so easy and so cheap that two guys in a garage could hack life in the way kids hack code. That day is now here. Exhibit A is this biohacking lab in a garage in Silicon Valley. Assembled from used equipment the kit includes two clean cell-culture hoods, an incubator, two robot sequencers, and lots of software packed into a suburban garage. The guys are screening antic-cancer compounds.

Not that everyone thought a do-it-yourself biotech lab was inevitable. Many folks in the biotech industry have repeatedly explained why biotech is different, how it is far more complex than digital stuff, requiring far more education to master, how the subject is far more delicate requiring far more precision in experiments, and the equipment thus far more expensive than anything computers use, meaning overall that garage biotech hackers were very unlikely. “You need a PhD and a clean room” they would say.

Maybe you do, but Rob Carlson, who has been tracking biotech for decades, recently photographed the above pictures of the DIY biotech. He also pointed to the example of maker-types constructing DIY clean rooms, such as this one made from industrial shelving and off-the-shelf filters.

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As Carlson explains:

I continue to get push back from people who assert that “it is really too hard” to hack biology in a garage, or too expensive, or that garage labs just can’t be up to snuff. This sort of dissent usually comes out of National Labs, Ivy League professors, or denizens of the beltway. All I can say to this is — Doodz, you need to get out more.

The people who built the lab pictured above are pursuing a project that is technically well beyond anything discussed on the DIYBio list, and while they may be watching the DIYBio conversation they don’t advertise what they are up to. It would be better for all of us if we could rest assured that conversations about this sort of work could proceed in the open without guys showing up in biohazard suits with weapons drawn — Youtube, at the 00:00:48 mark.

There continues to be a prominent thread of conversation in Washington DC that “biohacking” is somehow aberrant and strange. But apparently DIYBio, you’ll be happy to hear, is a group composed of the Good Guys. Everyone should feel happy and safe, I guess. Or maybe not so much, but not for the reasons you might think.

The creation of a false dichotomy between “DIY Biotech” (good guys) and “Biohacking” (bad guys) lends unfortunate credence to the notion that there is an easily identifiable group of well-meaning souls who embrace openness and who are eager to work with the government. On the contrary, in my experience there are a number of people who are actively hacking biology in their garages who intentionally keep a low profile (I am not certain how many and know of no existing measure, but see discussion above). This tally included me until a little over a year ago, though now my garage houses a boat under restoration. These people often consider themselves “hackers”, in the same vein as people who hack computers, boats (!), cars, and their own houses. Yes, it is all hacking, or Making, or whatever you want to call it, and not only is it generally

There’s a lot more in Carlson’s post which is worth reading. Indeed he has a new book out about the coming impact of cheap biotechnology, entitled: Biology is Technology

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As he says in Chapter One:

The influence of exponentially improving biological technologies is only just now starting to be felt. Today writing a gene from scratch within a few weeks costs a few thousand dollars. In five to ten years that amount should pay for much larger constructs, perhaps a brand-new viral or microbial genome. Gene and genome-synthesis projects of this larger scale have already been demonstrated as academic projects. When such activity becomes commercially viable, a synthetic genome could be used to build an organism that produces fuel, or a new plastic, or a vaccine to combat the outbreak of a new infectious disease.

As I will discuss in Chapter 6, the costs of reading and writing new genes and genomes are falling by a factor of two every eighteen to twenty-four months, and productivity in reading and writing is independently doubling at a similar rate. We are just now emerging from the “slow” part of the curves, by which I mean that the cost and productivity of these technologies are now enabling enormous discovery and innovation. Consequently, access to technology is also accelerating. “Garage biology” is here already; in Chapter 12 I share a bit of my own experience sorting out how much innovation is possible in this context.




Comments
  • Bob Watson

    Let’s see. Bacteria have been doing Garage Bio in the open for a gazillion years in a continuous orgy of coupling and decoupling. Despite all the uncountable monsters created, here we all are. And whatever monsters there may have been are all gone. What’s to worry?

  • YummyPasta

    This post is awesome! This is exactly what I did also. I built my own fume hood and did DNA sequencing experiments in my garage for 1.5 years (in Silicon Valley). I could work very efficiently because while experiments were running for hours, I could do house stuff. It all worked so well, that now I have a startup company with seven people in the local biotech incubator.

    Our machine is going to take this idea even further. Our $400 machine will allow sequencing of whole genomes in 30 minutes for $50 in consumables.

  • Mitch

    In the first half of the 20th century, all culture hoods and cell culture incubators were DIY. Mammalian cell culture wasn’t big enough yet for there to be an industry. So it is entirely possible to build functional lab equipment like this.

    That said, I do think a person needs formal training and a stipend to really succeed in science. It is conceivable that someone could do DIY science in their spare time and perhaps publish in low-tier journals on a semiregular basis, but for the moment I can’t see anyone being able to “play in the big leagues” doing this stuff on their own and with no real background. It is very easy to read and accumulate information. The difficult part is learning to distinguish between good and bad science and to become one of the guys doing the good stuff.

    Frankly, screening anticancer compounds in cell culture is bad science (granted, a lot of people at universities are doing this – a sad trend which will hopefully end soon). Many things kill immortalized cell lines which have no efficacy whatsoever in an animal model: you need to consider absorption, metabolism, excretion, etc. in a whole organism. It is also bad economics for a small-time operation like this: how can a couple of guys in a garage compete with a Pharm company that has a staff of 1,000 and properly screens a million compounds every day, at least? If you want to succeed in Biotech as a small operation, you should create a whole new technology, sell it, and then retire.

    Thats my two cents. This is neat stuff, but I don’t see big-league science ever becoming a lay activity.

  • Eddie

    Hi folks,

    Props to your YummyPasta.
    :-) On a fun/speculative level… GET READY for ZOMBIES!! Hope that the practitioner of this “dark arts” have a fall back plan to lockdown the facility (oopss…I mean Garage) should an bio experiment goes wrong.

    The worse that David Packard and Bill Hewlett might have done was set fire to their garage office with their experiements/initial-work on “computers”. Even Michael Dell’s efforts in his (parents?) garage might only cause some of his early unhappy young customer to throw stones at the garage. (Can’t think of more examples for garage start-ups)

    But with biotechnology labs in garages… hmmm, what’s the worse case scenario? :-o Any fun speculations?

    Zombies, Mutants (after throwing in a homebrew radiation devices) Plants/Squirrels/Rats/Roaches etc. :-) Time to stock up on rations and ammunition, and reinforce the doors/windows/walls if there’s a nearby “Garage Biolab” in your neighbourhood.

    In fun and cheers,
    Ed

  • jeff s

    I remember a news piece from 2003 about japanese researchers storing mouse dna snippets as colored dots on a sheet of paper. when they needed a specific snippet they would punch out the required labeled dot and dissolved it in solution.
    since it was “dry” storage it could keep in a d-ring binder or get sent in the mail.

    make me think of both the anthrax letters and the online sequencing of the 1918 flu.

    http://blog.verbosity.net/200312archive001.html

  • JZ

    Do you know how much two cell culture hoods and a robotic sequencer cost? Probably over $100,000 total, this is not something your everyday person could spend. Have you ever done a day of cell culture in your life, if you have you know that contamination happens so often it is fucking crazy. I would like to see how they keep that garage sterile. Further, how do you screen anticancer drugs by doing sequencing?

    –Biochemist

  • zod

    Neat/amazing and I’m pretty sure I don’t want some weird bio-scheidt in my neighbors garage. Not a fan of regulations, but here – yep.

  • Trogdor

    Yep, it’s been going on for awhile now.

    http://pajamasmedia.com/richardfernandez/2009/05/12/o-brave-new-world-2/

    I pray nobody accidentally (or intentionally) creates something like Captain Trips (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Trips)

  • http://www.nurspanax.com/ panax

    this is real very good…

  • Macmanchgo

    I have been in biotech so long that the first company I drew a logo for actually called itself “Biotech” and we thought it was original, well it was, since the biotech industry didn’t call itself that until later. That was at the Univ. of Wisconsin. Back then biologists all shared their strains and shared their data. No CDAs no Material Transfer Agreements.

    Then the businesspeople started to take over. First thing they did was encourage scientists to “patent” everything and that meant keeping everything a secret, and not sharing. That continues to this day so that the universities are now more like self-serving corporations than civic-minded learning centers.

    Ask any biotech scientist if he or she has become rich. They will tell you only the patent lawyers and business guys get rich in biotech. Actually the scientists get in it for the fun and excitement and don’t generally care if they get rich, which is the same kind of spirit you are tapping into at BioCurious.

    I hope you can figure out a way to end the blockade to the University libraries where they want to charge you $30 or more for every scientific paper you need to read. This is very damaging to progress and is a part of the problem for rapid growth of entrepreneurs who are not a part of the existing biotech-industrial complex.

    One way to get around it is to simply use existing internet mechanisms to communicate your results with minimal copyright restrictions, and improve the peer review process. One way to improve peer review is to put more of your raw data online so that anyone that wants to challenge your results can look exactly at what you did and decide for themselves if it is believable. More videos would be helpful and the comments section there on YouTube could be a great way to get feedback.

    Another problem with biotech and drug development is with a sole-focus on profits. This problem has become so large that even if a scientist found a cure for cancer, and he had the unfortunate circumstance that the compound was “in the public domain” and it could not be derivatized into a patentable compound, then the cure would not be developed because the “investors” would not stand to gain profit from the enterprise. This is how sad our health care system has become.

    This has hurt society enormously and your organization can be one of the first to address this issue. Basically you are beginning a “peoples revolution” to take back science from the conservative forces that dominate it now and you have to be given a lot of credit for your courage and spirit.

    And finally, yes you do need guidance on the safety aspects. One bottle of NTG mishandled could cause great harm, so all experiments need to be put through an approval process before they are conducted and they should be supervised as well. Also you need help in training people in the scientific method. The idea of controls is the most important, but once that is mastered then the world is yours because doing science is not hard, and doesn’t require genius. It just requires the spirit to want to discover your world and make it a better place.