DIY biology: incubating in Seattle

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Sandra Porter
This afternoon, I attended the first meeting of a DIY biology group in Seattle, after a kind invitation from one of the founders.
DIY, for those of you new to the acronym, stands for "Do It Yourself."
But, you say, there are lots of people who do biology on their own. Some people keep pets. Some have children. Others raise tropical fish, go bird watching, or mushroom hunting. Some people even make yogurt or cheese, or brew beer, or make wine. What makes DIY biology so different?
This isn't your grandfather's home brew
Well, lets say for now that it's a little more technical, and a lot more 21st century.
Around our table, were biology technicians, unsatisfied by their day time work at various institutions, bioengineering students, into synthetic biology, one of my former students (!), students from the UW in molecular biology and biochemistry, and a graduate student from the UW microbiology department, with IGEM experience.
We talked about ideas for projects, getting the public interested in science, finding lab space, and lab safety. Ingrid and Scott also told the group about DIY projects in other parts of the country like Boston, California, and Chicago.
Most of today's discussion, beyond getting to know each other better, centered around the legal and safety concerns.
Lab space - where do you practice DIY biology?
Sure, you can do DIY biology in your kitchen or garage, but no one wants to be like Robert Farrell, the geneticist who was charged with bioterrorism when he mailed harmless strains of bacteria to an art professor (You can read Tara's post to learn more). Plus, it would be more economical if the group could pool resources and work together in some kind of lab.
    Some possibilities are:
  • Working at a UW lab - perhaps the IGEM space. The downside is that only people with some kind of UW affiliation could participate. This will certainly work for people who are going to participate in IGEM, but might not work for other sorts of projects.
  • Finding another lab space. In Seattle, there are places where people can go to brew beer, and there are photography and art studio spaces. Could there be a DIY biology lab space? Would Pacific Science Center be interested?
Legal issues - if you do have a lab space, and you're not funded by grants, are there liability or legal issues that go along with running a hobbyist kind of lab? To me, it seems like the biggest issue would be to make sure no one is manufacturing (or growing) anything illegal. You don't want the neighbors to think you're operating a meth lab.
Figure 1. No creating mutant fish, kiddies. No, no, no!
Safety concerns: these are going to be different, depending on whether you're working with some kind of microbe or working with data and computers (like I advocate).
  • If you work with computers and data - there are no worries about safety and there's plenty of basic research that can be done.
  • If you work with yeast, like Saccharomyces cereviseae, the organism is safe. People use it make beer, bread, and wine and you can buy it at the grocery store. If you put new genes into it, I think you could kill the yeast by boiling it. The biggest difficulty is that it's harder to get genes into yeast then it is to get them into bacteria.
  • If you work with E. coli K12, it seems pretty safe, but it depends what you do. (I'll write more about this in a later post).
  • If you work with bacteria from the environment - this is not as safe. In fact, I can't find the reference at the moment, but I read last year on some list serve that the National Science Teacher's Association issued some kind of position paper, saying it was too dangerous for high school student to isolate bacteria from the environment. Their concern derived from the CDC's warning about community acquired MRSA infections. The CDC reported that 94,360 developed serious MRSA infections during 2005, and 18,650 people died, more than the number of people dying from AIDS (in the U.S at least). Most of those infections were picked up in health-care facilities, but still, with 30% of people carrying some kind of Staph, it's good to be a bit cautious.
It would be the safest and most cost-effective if DIYers could work together in a lab that has an autoclave, or at least a good stock of bleach. They could also cut costs and time by sharing equipment and working together.
GMO concerns: we discussed making suicide or "safety genes" along the lines of the terminator genes that Monsanto uses in some of their plants. The idea would be to minimize the release of modified organisms by causing them to die in the absence of something we provide.
What's next? There may be some kind of get together in February, where we isolate DNA. I used to have my students isolate DNA from grocery store items in one of the classes that I taught and I tested a few of these techniques at home with my kids. I'm all set for this one and will keep you posted.
That's all for now folks, I'll keep you posted as the work progresses.

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