The rise of DIY labs

A few weeks ago, Sam Kean wrote in Science about GenSpace, a very New Yorkish approach to Biology. Occupying a couple of labs on the 7th floor of what used to be a bank, members of the GenSpace collective – students, entrepreneurs and artists – each pitch in $100 a month to use scientific equipment to study whatever they want.

DIY biology is a growing movement, assisted by online forums and Google groups where like-minded experimenters can meet each other and share tips. The website DIYbio.org describes itself as “an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety”. The founders of GenSpace met each other through the DIYbio Google group and began experimenting in their living rooms. When they began to encounter difficulties – like where to store their microbes – they decided to find their own lab space.

There’s something very appealing about the scientific freedom of collectives like these. Users of GenSpace include former academic scientists, current students, bioentrepreneurs and even an artist, “growing” her next sculpture. Each one of them is there because they have their own ideas to pursue, like Oliver Medvedik, who is developing biosensors for detecting arsenic in water. Surely one of the main appeals of groups like GenSpace and their San Franciscan counterparts BioCurious must be the lack of structure. You study what you want to, not what your supervisor, department or grant provider decides. Because there’s no external pressure, you haven’t failed anyone if your experiments don’t work, and it’s you who gets to decide what to do next – this must surely relieve some of the pressures and frustrations of formal science research environments, particularly those felt by junior researchers.

However, breaking away from the scientific establishment carries its own set of problems – problems that the establishment was created to get rid of in the first place. The obvious is funding. GenSpace charges its users a monthly fee and tops up its bank account by teaching, but it is at the mercy of charity and insider connections that it gets its technical equipment – a micropipette, for example, would otherwise cost over £150. Safety could easily be a problem, but GenSpace seem to be reassuringly switched on, giving their new members training, screening new project ideas, and consulting university and government safety officers. I can’t help but wonder about training though – I regularly ask more senior researchers in my department for help with techniques I haven’t used before and my research would be a much harder struggle without their input.

As long as DIY biology groups manage to meet these obstacles and balance their books, they have the potential to be the breeding grounds for the next big ideas of biology. Unconstrained by funding stipulations, DIY scientists have the freedom to explore new areas. This is something we’ll see less of in institutionalised science, as funding cuts shift money away from blue-sky research and into applied fields. In Sam Kean’s article, Eri Gentry, co-founder of BioCurious, explains that a driving force behind finding their own lab space was how weary many of her friends had grown of their narrow PhD topics. DIY biology initiatives may therefore hold a special appeal for talented researchers who don’t want to wait until they win the tenure lottery to begin designing their own research projects. GenSpace also allows its members to hold all the intellectual property rights for their work – a tempting offer for young aspiring biotech developers, unlikely to be given such ownership of their research findings elsewhere.

DIYBio.org has local groups across the US, as well as in Singapore, Madrid, Paris, Bangalore, Copenhagen and in the UK too. Out of the two UK groups, based in London and Manchester, “DIYBIO MCR” is further along, occupying a base at the Manchester Digital Laboratory and receiving support from the Wellcome Trust and Manchester Metropolitan University. Although the association with big names like these may reduce the otherwise slightly anarchist feel of the movement, these kinds of collaborations could become an effective means for engaging the public in scientific discussion. Monthly meetings and the chance to receive guidance from professionals means absolutely anyone can turn up and have a go at an experiment. I hope it catches on – if more people get the chance to meet scientists and have a go at an experiment, public misunderstanding and suspicion of science will surely reduce.

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