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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

Filed under: Citizen Science, DIYbio

About the Author

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I love using genomics, synthetic and molecular biology to engineer microbes. I am excited about the potential of synthetic biology to create new technologies with massively transformative potential.

1 Comment so far

  1. I did not answer the question. I think DIYbio will surpass expectations and make some meaningful contributions and discoveries. I am currently researching a small list of the some of the more interesting projects and current successes. Please share any cool DIYbio projects that you are aware of and can speak of.

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