Pure Pedantry

DIY Bio will not end the world

People are doing biology in their kitchen now, or in rented labs with cheaper equipment:

In Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up a community lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment, including a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80 degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria alive.

Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.

Cowell said such unfettered creativity could produce important discoveries.

“We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game,” he said.

Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in the 1970s.

She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.

Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.

I am intrigued that people are doing this because I have always thought that we pay WAY too much money for most of the equipment we use in biology labs. There are lots of household goods that we use in experiments that are often purchased from special research supply companies rather than the supermarket. Why on Earth we pay 20 bucks for aluminum foil from Fisher when we could just walk down to the drug store is beyond me.

What they seem to be doing is pretty basic molecular stuff like cloning. Cloning is the process of inserting a gene in a vector for expression in another organism. A vector is a circle of DNA that can be read by cells like a bacteria or a yeast. Making modified strains of yeast and bacteria this way requires an incubator, an autoclave, and some fancy enzymes to cut DNA. It also usually requires a computer so that you can look up the sequences of the genes you would like to insert.

These types of experiments don’t require millions of dollars in equipment. Given a reasonable amount of preparation, I am pretty certain that I could do several of my experiments in my kitchen. Or even better, I am certain that I could do an experimental demonstration with them in your average biology high school classroom. That should give you a sense of the complexity that we are dealing with.

So I am pretty dubious of the notion that “organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.” There is no greater risk of that than there is of transgenic bacteria escaping from any of the thousands of molecular biology laboratories in our nation. Genetically modified yeast and E. coli are not considered serious biological hazards because the modified strains require special growing conditions — including selection using antibiotics — to maintain the modification. Otherwise they revert to just plain old yeast and E. coli.

Actually the more likely negative scenario is that these DIY labs will produce absolutely nothing. If you are a PhD researcher with a lot of practice, you could probably get this stuff to work. But these experiments often fail even with experienced researchers in controlled laboratory settings. The much more likely negative side is that many amateur researchers would have trouble getting their stuff to work and waste their money in the process.

Anyway, I am pleased and amused that people are doing stuff like this if for no other reason than it raises the visibility of biologists and removes some of the mystery of what we do. At the same time, however, I will believe “new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels” when I see them.


  1. #1 Mariah
    December 29, 2008

    I’m of two minds on this: yeah, maybe they won’t get anything to work. But I think some of them are probably capable. I worked with undergrads in the lab who cloned stuff for me. They are smart enough for that.

    But I think assuming it is lab E. coli and yeast is too narrow. What if someone decides to make a plant that expresses human dopamine? You know, to grind up the leaves and self-medicate. And then puts it on the back porch for the summer….That’s a crude example, and maybe they won’t get that far. But are you sure they won’t?

    Sure, maybe it won’t release genes to the environment…but…?

    It is funny–I’m seeing strange bedfellows on this: some people think that it is democratization of science, and some people who usually think GMOs are the devil somehow supporting this.

  2. #2 gmoke@world.std.com
    December 29, 2008

    Good thing that these folks aren’t running uncontrolled experiments with GMO pollens like Monsanto. Now that might really be dangerous. Just ask Percy Schmeiser.

  3. #3 TomJoe
    December 30, 2008

    Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines …

    I suspect we’ll see several of these amateurs up for Darwin Awards sooner or later, especially if they test these vaccines on themselves.

  4. #4 eab
    December 30, 2008

    Personally, i admire that these brave amateurs are working in the same fields founded by fellows fooling around in their kitchens (i.e. they call it culture broth for a reason). One could even say that much of our so-called modern science was built on a foundation of independently wealthy eccentrics. Indeed, in the present day, look at J. Craig Venter. Who needs a university or other externally funded hoop-la to discover? …now, how do i become independently wealthy…? …alternatively, USDA offers grants to individuals putting new/sustainable practices into, um, practice…

  5. #5 bizimlesohbe
    December 30, 2008


  6. #6 Romeo Vitelli
    December 30, 2008

    Did you know that a teenager in Saskatchewan was recently arrested for having a chemistry lab in his house? Police thought it was a meth lab but quickly changed their tune and decently that he was a potential bombmaker. These home biologists might end up getting a visit from Homeland Security.

  7. #7 MPL
    December 31, 2008

    Re Mariah:

    Frankly, addictive vegetables could do America some good.

  8. #8 ilkchat
    December 31, 2008

    ilkchat thanks

  9. #9 yogi-one
    December 31, 2008

    I’m on my way to the drugstore now for my materials to change the course of evolution!
    First I will wipe out the world’s major population centers with a SUPER NUKULAR VIRUS! Then I will populate the world with glowing clone bots whose computer -chip-controlled brains are programmed to obey my every command! And I can do it all from my Mom’s basement!

    BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA! I can’t wait to rule the planet! Bow down before me, you pitiful, primitive homo-sapiens!

  10. #10 itaylor
    December 31, 2008

    I think the fear is based largely on not knowing what people are going to be doing with their experiments. Normally, in an academic setting, we don’t know exactly what other labs in the field are working on, because they need to protect their funding/get their phd’s, whatever. But we are comfortable that there is at least internal oversight ensuring that their labs are functioning safely and responsibly.
    In this situation, there isn’t necessarily either form of oversight, internal or external, into what these home researchers are doing.
    I think if there was an open science project that these labs partnered with to be transparent about what genes they’re working with and which organisms they are using, then a lot of the uncertainty would go away. Of course that still doesn’t prevent someone from being clueless about basic lab and chemical safety, but perhaps that’s not too much of a complication.

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    December 31, 2008

    itaylor, as opposed to the oversight at those US government labs where they grew anthrax, weaponized it and sent it through the mail? Is that the kind of oversight you are talking about?

  12. #12 biopunk
    December 31, 2008

    “They”, daedalus2u?

    They? Do you have some relevant information the FBI should know about… …or are you just spreading more unfounded fear?

  13. #13 EricLR
    December 31, 2008

    I’d be more concerned that someone will be poisoned, or hurt by not following safe procedures or home-made equipment shorting out and starting a fire next to a big bottle of something flammable. That one of the people had to BUY a GFP vector that any number of labs at a local uni would have given to a colleague for free, makes me think there’s no responsible oversight. They also might not bother reading their license agreement and have Clonetech (or whoever owns eGFP now) lawyers show up asking about this glowing yogurt they’ve been selling.
    Also, yeah we just buy our aluminum foil from the grocery store, same for our dried milk for blocking westerns. Other things like bicarb for cell culture, I’d be worried it wasn’t of sufficient purity, but maybe that what THEY want you to think. ;)

  14. #14 Sandra Porter
    December 31, 2008

    biopunk – to me it sounds more like daedalus2u reads the newspaper.

    New York Times: Scientist’s Suicide Linked to Anthrax Inquiry

  15. #15 biopunk
    January 1, 2009

    Sandra – while daedalus2u may read a newspaper, in his comments he insinuates the alleged sender, Bruce E. Ivins, was not operating alone in sending anthrax through the mail from the USAMRIID lab…

    While he may implicate the facility’s lax adherence to protocols as contributing to the attack, he does not state so. By that, he is complicit in fueling fear that “they” (as in, others with “weaponized” anthrax), are still out there.

    He may have meant: due to the inherent nature(s) of a BSL-4 military/civilian institutional structure, the lab lacks an impartial body with the requisite knowledge and powers required to correct and effectively deal with any inadequate safety, training, or reporting discrepancies. However, I’ll await his explanation…

  16. #16 Faz
    January 1, 2009

    I found this link, which tells you how to extract and gel purify genomic DNA with only the use of household items.


    With open source genes, like those found in the parts registry, it means that there is a lot of hope for amateur scientists producing something useful.

    There probably will be a lot of misguided souls with electrophoresis related injuries, a lot of crappy plasmids that don’t work very well, and enterprising con-artists who use spurious “research” done in backyard labs to lend credibility to quack products.

    However, there should be some sort of regulation which prevent these people from hurting themselves and other people.

  17. #17 Sigmund
    January 2, 2009

    I have zero worries about home enthusiasts causing a major problem. I wish I could say the same about those who know what they are doing. The current research climate is one in which you have thousands of post-docs competing for a small number of permanent jobs and to put yourself in the running you require a good publication in one of the big journals. In the field of cell biology this can mean producing a knock-in or knock-out cell line, mostly involving the use of retroviral or other viral based vectors. This is where the danger is. Risks are being taken and for very good reason (remember, the alternative is to see your career ending when someone else takes the risk instead of you).