DIY biology: incubating in Seattle

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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I commend the club for considering all the various issues you mention. I look forward to hearing how this groups proceeds, and what sort of projects they attempt. Thanks!

Regarding GMO concerns, I doubt they would relevant. Any cloning would almost certainly be into std. lab strains of coli or yeast, right? I think it's abundantly clear by now that 'GMO' coli or yeast pose no intrinsic dangers. (The exception would be cloning/expressing certain toxin genes, which DIYer's shouldn't even be able to acquire, and which I think would be illegal.)

I'd be very surprised (and impressed) if DIYers had the capability to create any GMO plants or animals with any possibility of surviving in the wild.

Thanks for the excellent write-up of the meeting!

If anyone is interested in getting on a mailing list for future DIYbio meetings in Seattle there is now a Google Groups page for announcing local meetings.

From the Seattle DIYbio page you can also go to the main DIYbio discussion board and home page.

My knee-jerk reaction to you supporting DIYbiohobbyists only doing computer work and data mining and no hands on wet lab bench work is that you are being very patronizing. It's like a computer scientist telling me, a molecular biologist, that I can't learn Perl, I should just stick with using it and putting data through it. I understand that there are very valid safety concerns attached to amateur genetics, but just as easily as we as biologists fear amateurs creating something dangerous, so too could a computer scientist justifiably fear us learning Perl and creating some horrible Internet-killing worm, either by accident or design.

If people are really worried about malignant amateur tinkering, then maybe it would be best to have group mission statements (e.g., "First no doominess, second fun tinkering!") and a rule that everyone work in teams and participate in presentations of their work and what they've learned. The upfront costs of functioning and comprehensive equipment are high enough to discourage solitary actors and require communality. Maybe DIYbiohobbyists could learn something in terms of structural dynamics from the communal hacker spaces and electronics workshops that are springing up.

One of the things that concerns me most about these groups is: what are they going to do with their waste? Sure, one can boil, pressure-cook, or autoclave biohazard waste, but what about chemical mutagens, flammables, or extreme volatiles or toxics, like ethidium bromide, mitomycin C, 2-betamercapthenol, phenol, acids, or even DMSO?

Institutionalized research centers have protocols and centers for disposing of that kind of waste. But what about hobbyists?

Thanks all for the comments. It was good to see you Randy!

I was impressed yesterday by the level of concern that the Seattle DIY group demonstrated regarding biological hazards.

You're absolutely right, Toaster, chemical hazards need to be considered as well and handled appropriately. Luckily, there are some less alternatives to some of the chemicals you mentioned. High schools, for example, use stains that are less hazardous than ethidium bromide.

I think the best thing would be for the hobbyists to have some kind of safety code and perhaps, if they can find space at a research institution, they can benefit from some kind of institutional oversight. The DIY people I met yesterday weren't strictly amateurs. All of them either worked in molecular biology labs or had some kind of training.

My interest in using computer work isn't meant to be patronizing. Nor would it have to be exclusive. It's simply what I love to do. Bioinformatics also has some advantages since you don't have to worry about chemical or biological waste and there is lots of publicly accessible data to work with.

qetzal - I agree with you that the DIY'ers are unlikely to make GMO plants or animals. However, if they wanted to do so, it is really quite easy to make GMO plants. Bacteria do it all the time and it's what I studied in graduate school.

As far as legal ramifications go, what about the insurer of the lab space? Wouldn't they be just as liable for accidents? If you are using university space, they hold the liability, and would have to be informed BEFORE wet work or computer use started.
About suicide genes - what happens if a transient bacterium picks it up and passes it on to a eukaryote? Bacteria do this all the time too.
Doing this type of work in a regulated facility is risky enough. If you cannot get funding through regular channels, maybe there is more to be considered before striking out on your own. ( I did say maybe :-)

By Mary Beth Colter (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

Mary Beth: There are certainly lots of things to consider about liability and I can't imagine that you could get any kind of dedicated space at a University or research institution without their consent and some oversight.

I'm sure this is why some of the DIY people, like Meredith Patterson, the woman in the article who's engineering lactobacillus, prefer to do genetic engineering in their kitchens.