Amateur scientists build Lego-style synthetic BioBricks in public lab
While some may believe that science is better left to scientists, hundreds of amateur biologists around the world have been setting-up makeshift biology labs in their homes, garages and community centres. Some of these “biohackers” or “DIY biologists” have political motivations to open up science for all, a few attempt to address an absence of research in rare genetic diseases, some are curious and have a desire to learn, while others are taking part just for the sheer fun of it all.
Although “hacking” can carry negative connotations, it is clear that they are not the pipette-wielding revolutionaries they may sound like, and “hacking” is adopted more in the sense of playfully finding innovative and resourceful ways to build and modify. Groups have already developed novel lab equipment hacks including converting webcams into microscopes, building centrifuges out of drills and incubators out of picnic coolers. But despite such seemingly innocent hobbyist activities, biology as a science is also becoming more “hackable”, thanks to the field of synthetic biology. This raises a number of ethical and safety issues, especially if the public were able to access the technology.
Based on principles from engineering, synthetic biology makes use of “BioBricks”, genetic sequences which have been standardised like electronic components. These Lego-like BioBricks have various functions and can be plugged into each other with ease to create entirely new biological systems in microorganisms. These techniques can be used, for example, to transform bacteria into machines for sensing and degrading pollutants. And every year, university teams compete in an international competition, iGEM, based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to develop new BioBricks to be added to their registry.
While the potential of the technology has already been demonstrated by professional scientists, what if biohackers or other members of the public were also able to access these tools? Now, for the first time, the University College London (UCL) iGEM team and the London Biohacking group are exploring these issues to encourage public debate.
The teams have come together to create the world’s first “public BioBrick”, built partly in a university lab, and partly in a public lab. Working with UCL over the last few months, the biohackers chose to create a BioBrick comprised of two genes — one for degrading mercury, a toxic water pollutant, and another for making antifreeze compounds. If this BioBrick was then inserted into a bacterial cell, not only would the cell take on a new function of degrading mercury in its environment, but the antifreeze would also help it survive in ice-cold waters.
“This was a really exciting experience,” says UCL iGEM team leader, Philipp Boeing. “It was amazing to find a group that was evidently so passionate about the subject they were studying, but who approached it in such a different way. I think this was a really novel discovery for most of us.”
To build the biobrick, the biohackers used their public lab at the London Hackspace to extract DNA from marine bacteria, which naturally have these two genes. Then using their thermal cycler (a machine for heating and cooling solutions of DNA), they replicated sufficient copies of the genes to ensure successful BioBrick manufacture.
In order to comply with UK regulations, the second stage of genetic modification was carried out in UCL’s lab. The biohackers took the two genes they had already isolated, and connected them to the standardised BioBrick backbone via a chemical process called ligation, to form the final “public BioBrick”.
“It was great to see what we do in a wider context, and to learn from professionals,” says one of the London biohackers. “Because most of the outside knowledge we use comes from books or the internet, it was good to get more face to face contact, and experience new lab techniques.”
Despite having created a new BioBrick that could be used in potential interventions for dealing with mercury pollution, due to iGEM Registry rules on non-professional institutions, the biohackers will not be allowed to access their own BioBrick in the future. The UCL team therefore hope this project will raise awareness of issues of public access to the iGEM Registry, and they are already planning further projects.
“I’ve been really inspired by our collaboration,” continues Philipp Boeing. “I think it’s definitely time to bring DIYbio in London to the next level. My favourite idea involves a community lab that’s certified for genetic modification. This should be a public place for molecular biology, and a space to carry out projects in a safe environment.”
It is this issue of safety that concerns many of the critics of biohacking, who fear improper lab protocols and the potential release of harmful genetically modified organisms. However, many biohackers argue that these concerns are significantly overstated. The organisation, DIYbio.org, maintains online biosafety resources for amateur biologists, and is also involved in an annual conference with the FBI’s bioterrorism unit to discuss safety and law enforcement. And many biohacking groups, for example, those in the UK, are already restricted in their activities due to licensing rules.
However, on safety issues, there is also a feeling among some biohackers that there may be no more of a reason to trust professional institutions to act responsibly with new technologies than members of the public.
“There are no biohackers I have heard of that could generate an environmental catastrophe or lead a bioterrorist attack,” says a London Biohacking member, “whereas there are many professional organisations, with actions dictated by political or financial interests, that have demonstrated themselves to be very successful at bringing such catastrophes”.
Some also argue that focusing on issues of biosafety detracts from realising the contributions to science that can be made by the public. So while biohacking may still be a long way off from anything that could be defined as a major scientific breakthrough, projects like the “public BioBrick” are already teasing us with the possibilities that can be achieved through biohacking, and greater public involvement in science in general.
The UCL and London Biohacking teams will be discussing and exhibiting their “public BioBrick” with a live genetic isolation and visualisation experiment at London’s Grant Museum of Zoology on Monday 24 September, 7 to 8.30pm