DIY bio, programming culture, and the cultural divide

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Sandra Porter

I guess I put my foot in it when I wrote that Genome Technology article on DIY Bio. I've already gotten a couple of e-mails today and I can see on the Google groups DIY bio section, that I managed to offend some people by suggesting doing biotechnology successfully at home might mean that you actually have to learn some biology.

Funny, huh?

It's like I suggested something heretical. People have to learn how to program to write software, don't they? I don't see that doing biotechnology as a hobby would be any different.

Anyway, here's my response to the DIY google group critics. I've rephrased some of the comments and suppositions on the Google group list serve into questions since reading through e-mail threads is a bit cumbersome. No doubt I'll get corrected in the comments.

1. Do I believe you can only learn biotechnology techniques at a university?

No, of course not. I never said anything about where learning should occur. If I were asked, I would say the best place to learn biotechnology methods is a community college biotech program. âº
But, classes take time and money and aren't always easy to schedule into your life, so why not learn biotechnology from each other and do it as a hobby? That's fine with me.

2. Do I object to people sharing knowledge and teaching themselves how to isolate DNA and clone genes?

No, of course not! I'm a teacher. I love the idea that people want to do biotechnology as a hobby.

One cautionary note though, there are some possible hazards to biotechnology lab work and those freaked me out when I first realized people were cloning in their kitchens. I have to point out, that if you're going to be involved in a hobby where you're using potentially hazardous materials, you have an obligation to learn about those materials and use them safely.

As a microbiologist, I agree that it seems fairly safe to work with E. coli K12 at home. However, some of the bacteria discussed on the Google DIYbio list serve are not good candidates for DIYbio projects, two examples: Agrobacterium and Acinetobacter. Acinetobacter has been increasingly implicated in hospital-acquired infections and Agrobacterium, while I love it as a research subject, is a plant pathogen and as such, shouldn't be used by hobbyists.

3. Do I object to people making mistakes in cloning experiments?

No! In the GT article, I casually mentioned that you can't just put an E. coli plasmid into Lactobacillus and expect it to work. It bothered to me to learn that some DIYers resented the suggestion that doing biotechnology would require them to learn some biology.

Dis my favorite subject will you? En garde!

Quoted from the list serve:

To my knowledge this doesn't really exist- so far, my understanding of
plasmid design has been "eh, figure out if there are any nucleotide or
codon biases in the organism's genome, and just make sure you make up
a vector that exhibits a similar bias." But maybe there's more to it,
and I'm just uneducated- so anybody should feel free to send me papers
or references on this topic.

Why does this kind of stuff annoy me?

Because this information does exist and I'm sure there are people who would help.  A well-constructed Google search should point to lots of biotechnology and microbiology blogs where this person could have asked the question and gotten an answer. There is even a great text book called "Principles of Gene Manipulation" by Primrose where you can learn all about plasmids and host range.

Another great place to ask these kinds of questions is Bitesize Bio, a wonderful blog that covers just this sort of thing. And I would even answer these kinds of questions.  There's no need to assume that if you don't know something, that people are hiding it from you.

4. Can you comment on your own posts in the DIY bio outreach thread?

Yes. I am very interested in the potential for outreach to elementary and high schools.

But, here's the deal:

Don't do outreach unless you've identified the take home message that you want students to remember. Sure, it's fun to isolate DNA from strawberries. But what do you want the students to learn? That strawberries have DNA?

Teachers have a limited amount of time in the classroom and every moment counts. Don't waste their time if you don't have a clearly articulated learning goal. If you're going to go isolate DNA with a group of students, you really ought to know how the isolation method works. 

One of the strengths of the DIYbio community is in bringing together people from different backgrounds and areas and getting them involved in biotechnology. There is an incredible ethic of sharing among programmers, as embodied in the Open Source movement, that I truly admire and respect and I'm interested to see how that translates to biotechnology. But there's an angry libertarian side in the software world, too. Hopefully, some of the attitudes that I see in the DIYbio list serve won't make the professional biologists start to say RTFM.

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