Biohackers: Science in the Suburbs

Taking biology out of the universities, researchers are starting private labs with public access.

With the recent depression in the economy, many scientists have found themselves without jobs or a place to explore new discoveries in their prospective fields. But the development of  “hackerspaces” — a term used to describe a physical location where people can discuss and collaborate on shared interests — scientists are once again finding places to resume their research.

With the prevalence of cheap computing, the first hackerspaces focused on computers and digital media. Recently, however, the cost of biological research has dropped precipitously, enabling non-profit bio-hackerspaces to gain a foothold.

Genespace, a highly successful non-profit biology laboratory in Brooklyn, NY, is just one of these new bio-hackerspaces. Co-founder Ellen Jorgensen describes their mission as focused on community outreach where participants pay $100 dollars a month to access equipment and courses like “Intro to Synthetic Biology” and “Bio-hacker Boot Camp.”

“We started as a Do-It-Yourself biology Google group in New York City. After 9/11 we wanted to give something back to the community,”  Jorgensen said. “At the time the area was really depressed. There were a lot of articles citing the dangers of amateur biology and we wanted to show the community that we could be an asset.”

Similar to Genespace, LA Biohackers is a local group that started as a DIY biology mailing list, but became something more. “We started meeting at coffee shops. [We were] brainstorming, planning and eventually joined a hackerspace in downtown LA called Nullspace,” Co-founder Cory Tobin, a graduate student studying plant genetics at the California Institute of Technology, said.

The space consisted of a tiny 200-square-foot corner of a second floor warehouse. Although their space was small, it was enough to house their discount lab equipment as well as a number of their own homemade equipment.

Research flourished and several advancements were made like those of Natalia Tchemodanov — a   neurophysiology graduate student at UCLA who built a device that can measure activity in snail neurons.

The biohackers were forced out of their space early last year and have been out of action until signing a new lease on a space in downtown Los Angeles last weekend. The group currently has about 20 people who pay $50 a month to use the space and equipment. Biohacker members come from nearby areas like Los Angeles, Pasadena and Long Beach to participate and continue their own research.

There are different motivations for starting a biology hackerspace. While some are focused on community outreach, others like LA Biohackers simply want their own space to work.

“I didn’t really care too much about the community lab aspect. I just wanted a space where I could do my own project. [I’m] selfish. I can’t work on my own projects in my lab, otherwise Caltech will own it,” Tobin said. “Everyone works their own projects and does their own stuff. So if you want to start a company you can do it all yourself. You don’t need to have a university taking your intellectual property.”

There are also projects aimed at people with no experience in biological research, wanting to get their feet wet. One beginner project utilizes recombinant DNA technology to make bacteria glow green.

LA Biohackers is also introducing a new class affiliated with the Build a Genome project (BAG) spawned in Professor Jeff Boeke’s lab at Johns Hopkins University. Their goal is to build the first synthetic eukaryotic genome where the Baker’s yeast genome is being reorganized to make it easier to understand and use. On the website, Boeke says that this is the first step in designing synthetic genomes capable of producing new vaccines and medications.

While many consider public access labs harmless, others are concerned that they may foster an environment of bioterrorism.

In a news feature on biohacking in 2010, Nature reported that the FBI began sending representatives to DIY-biology conferences in 2009 and have not seen anything to cause alarm. It appears that the biohacking community is very interested in working with the FBI as well as policing themselves.

“If someone came into our lab and said ‘I want to work on Anthrax’ or didn’t say it, but worked on something like that … [we’d say] you have to leave; now!”  Tobin said. “Don’t do it here. I am not going to allow people to work on stuff like that at our space.”

“We tell (the public) what a good relationship we have with our local Homeland Security team,”  Jorgensen said. “The FBI has used Genespace to hold meetings that bring local WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) coordinators together with their DIY-bio counterparts. We frequently are asked to speak at bio-security conferences.”

Jorgensen feels that working with the FBI has been instrumental in assuaging fear over the potential dangers of public biology.