All posts filed under “DIYbio

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Crowdfunding to support synthetic biology research projects

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   One of the most talked about and frustrating science topics on social media and during coffee break,  is the low success rates by science granting agencies. The current finding climate for basic research  in Canada, the United States, and in many places has reached an unprecedented low. The golden era of 25-30% success rates is a thing of the past, and if you are unlucky to have missed those peak years to develop your career, you are likely a mid or early career scientist facing this new reality.

   It is extremely demotivating to approach writing a grant when you have an approximate 10% chance to secure funding. Researchers are not bothering to miss out on the narrow window of summer heat by  writing grants with fall deadlines. To combat this universal challenge, many scientists are now exploring crowdfunding as an alternative approach to raise money to support basic research projects. While biotech start-ups are an obvious candidate to use crowdfunding, I am referring to early stage, idea-based projects, that may or may not have commercialization potential.

  The first crowdfunding science project in 2013 was to raise money to construct a bioluminescent “Glowing Plant”. The pitch was to use light producing plants as a natural light source and to replace electric or gas light sources. The novelty of the crowdsourcing idea to fund a science project was enough to raise almost half a million dollars, well above their intended goal of $65,000. The potential of synthetic biology  captured the imagination of funders and didn’t suffer the fear of producing a genetically modified organism.  As recently discussed in the Atlantic, the project has ended, run out of money and was not successful in creating a final product. It was not surprising, doing science is hard and they were unable to achieve their scientific goals.

   While kickstarter hosts the infrastructure for many crowdfunding projects, there are now specialized crowdfunding providers that feature research projects, including or  They present projects in diverse research fields, with a wide range of budgets, aimed to support principal investigator faculty members, startups and iGEM teams. A successfully crowdfunded project was based on studying climate change in the Falkland islands, and its impact on penguins (and other animals). The project raised over $10,000, which was roughly half of the actual total budget needed to complete the project. There seems to be a trend to ask for a portion of the actual budget needed. It may make the funding more tempting, knowing that there are phases and the upfront costs are smaller. I see parallels in standard grant competitions, where we undercut the actual budget, either angling to be high value, or lacking in confidence due to low success outcomes.  Upon final analysis, this scientist indicated that crowdfunding is not easy, it requires a huge social media campaign, and in this case, a large twitter following was probably a key piece to success. In addition, there is constructing a website, making a captivating movie and being available to respond to timely questions from potential backers.

   The stage has been set and I was happy to discover that there are many really interesting  synthetic biology projects hoping to crowdfund their way to some preliminary data,  additional funding and ultimately a successful startup. I support these innovators and am excited for the day when biology-based startups grow into a mature stage of success.

My top 3 crowdfunding synthetic biology projects

Engineered skin microbes to sense glucose and produce insulin to cure diabetes

  Dr Suzuki Yo is a faculty member at the J Craig Venter Institute and raised $50,000 to for his crowdfunding project titled “Needles be Gone for Type One Diabetes Patients“. This was a particularly interesting collaborative approach involving a researcher at the infamous and private JCVI with a unique crowdfunding venue, the Diabetes Research Connection.  Normal skin microbes were recently reported to live 3-6 mm below the skin surface, and often in proximity to blood vessels. Prior to this metagenomic study, most skin microbes were thought to be closer to the surface. Using these bacterial members of the skin microbiome as the chassis for the sensor, the approach is to engineer these host friendly microbes with a glucose sensing machinery, and to couple high glucose measurements with the controlled production of insulin. In this way, skin microbes could in principle replace the function of pancreatic beta cells and effectively “cure” type I diabetes, by restoring normal regulation of blood sugar levels.  This is an exciting and unexpected approach so I am not surprised this project raised significant funds, and the upside of the pitch is eliminating the use of needles to deliver insulin. The short-term goal is to demonstrate the proof of concept by painting the glucose sensing, insulin producing microbes onto the skin surface of mice, and to monitor glucose levels in a mouse model.

Aptapaper – aptamer detection of bacterial proteins in paper assays

A University of Michigan iGEM team has been successfully funded in two crowdfunding projects with the aim of building paper-based detection assays of bacterial pathogens. The most recent project is focussed on the detection of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis in up to 10 million people each year. The project relies on the use of aptamers, which are short stretches of DNA that bind to specific proteins. In this case, the target protein is likely a conserved M. tuberculosis protein. The binding of two separate DNA molecules to a target protein facilitates  ligation, subsequent conversion to double stranded DNA using in vitro transcription and cell free expression to produce a reporter protein. The reporter could be as simple as an enzyme that cleaves a substrate to produce a coloured product, and therefore a coloured spot on paper.  Paper-based assays are inexpensive and have long term stability at room temperature.

DNA typewriter to revolutionize data storage

Since there are more bits of data than grains of sand on the earth, we obviously need new tools to store the data! As our data increases with time, we are faced with a lack of suitable storage and resources to keep up. In principle, this is a proposed encryption system, where text can be encoded within the DNA molecule. Many are pursuing this new medium, given the small scale, stability and abundance of DNA. The program will need to convert english words into a stretch of DNA sequence, where each word fragment is named a BabbleBrick. Once the word fragments have been isolated, they will need to be assembled by a ligation method. The modularity of the system allows for combining BabbleBricks in any order, to construct any sentence of text. All the world’s data can be stored in 1 gram of DNA, in place of millions of USB sticks.

While all of these projects are exciting, the crowdfunding model comes with a few challenges. The typical incentive to seduce a financial backer is to offer some kind of reward. For more straightforward projects, the tangible project being made is often gifted to backers. There is a far greater risk of success for these projects, so it can be difficult to provide a reward. When you include a few dozen or few thousand investors in the crowdfunding, do they have any role in ownership or patents? By simply disclosing the idea, the innovator may be prevented from obtaining patent protection. As all scientists are well aware, the ability to carry out a proposed research is rich in failure, and early stage ideas like these may not reach the finish line. Others may question whether raising a few thousand dollars is worth the risk.  I find the opportunity to pursue crowdfunding an excellent funding path for the right project.




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DIY Molecular Biology Labs – Will they democratize biotechnology?

low tech diy microfluidics device

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We are entering a new era of biotechnology where new innovations can be produced rapidly, have an enormous impact on society or the environment, and generate significant economic value.  Science research is expensive and generally carried out in well-funded, well-equipped labs.  Therefore, new technologies typically arise out of university or industry research environments. Despite the significant advantages these conventional innovation routes provide, the commercialization process can be daunting, slow, and unsupported from universities in particular. Perhaps there may arise a new player in the game.

There is a do-it-yourself (DIY) momentum spreading and engaging more and more people to carry out basic research in DIY biology labs.  The hope for building community labs is that curious lay person citizens can engage in molecular biology training, offering the possibility to create and even build new potential biotechnologies. At the very least, DIY labs offer a place to educate and tinker with synthetic biology. Some have  suggested that this accessibility offers the possibility to democratize biotechnology, making  it available, transparent and inexpensive for all. Google has shown a trend to recruit individuals that were not formally educated in universities, arguing that individuals that make it without formal education have learned how to succeed in diverse environments. So I wonder how big of an impact, if any, can DIY contribute to synthetic biology and biotechnology?

Some argue that garage style biohackers are central to the fast growing world of synthetic biology, especially since the basic equipment is easily available on auction sites. Technology evolves quickly and there is always the need to have the latest and greatest, providing a bonanza of cheap, surplus, functional and sophisticated molecular biology equipment, things like PCR machines, desktop centrifuges, electrophoresis boxes, UV light tables and incubators. Of course there is the need for access to molecular reagents  and enzymes. Just like any lab, many services can now be provided from a third party, whether it’s ordering your custom DNA (GenScript), synthesized to your specifications, or sending RNA samples away for RNA-seq analysis. Do-it-yourselfers are not content to simply buy cheap machines thrown out by big labs. They prefer to bootstrap,  hack and to build their own primitive solutions to things like PCR machines and gel imaging stations. The significant contribution of bioinformatics to engineering and biology is a relatively easy way for programmers and hackers with an interest in biology to integrate and contribute to DIY science.

The first open source thermocycler is now available at a very affordable price of $650 (Open PCR).  I believe my first gradient PCR machine cost almost $10,000 less than 10 years ago. Read here about several hardware and wetware solutions for DIY lab. What can’t an iPhone do? Add a drop of water to the lens and increase the magnification of your iPhone photos, creating a simple microscope. The iPhone is rapidly being developed for various medical uses including a glucose or blood pressure monitor,  an ECG device, as well as an ultrasound. Perhaps you need a microfluidic device, try this clever trick with low tech paper microfluidics. Or read about Josiah Zaynor here, who started the Open Discovery Network (ODIN).  In true DIY fashion, his company is making molecular biology reagents available to anyone, and is currently working on making a CRISPR kit for home experimentation.

While lab space can be rented or garages can be converted, equipment can be cheaply acquired, reagents are accessible, what remain as the barriers to underground DIY science? DIY labs seem rather keen on maintaining a safe environment, and most are only using biosafety level 1 organisms. However, I can imagine that certified labs will ultimately be required, and the regulation of making genetic modifications in these environments might prove to be a  problem. Sustainable funding remains a significant barrier to keeping the various DIY organizations up and running, but that is also an issue for most universities anywhere.

What will be the ultimate measure of success for DIY science? These labs will need to be able to compete in the classic funding routes, or generate their own independnet funding solutions. It would be great to see some peer-reviewed publications based on research completed or in collaboration with DIY labs. And of course, I am anxious to see the first successful project to emerge with commercialization potential. For the entrepreneurial minded, publication might be a complete waste of time, go straight for the minimum viable product, or MVP.

Follow this link to view a list of current DIY labs worldwide.

Passionate pleas for the potential of DIY bio.

Sandra Porter, PhD

Ellen Jorgensen, PhD  TED talk