Zakiya Qualls: The Do-It-Yourself Biology Movement and the ethical implications of molecular biology for all.
Current position: Ph.D. Candidate, Immunity, Infection, & Inflammation (I3) Research Track: Freelance medical writer & blogger
Program start date: September 2011
Institution: Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences
At first, the thought of a life away from lab was oddly liberating, however, the closer the time comes to walk away, the more certain I become that I will indeed miss bench work and the overall laboratory environment. As I mentioned in my earlier introductory post, I had a sort of aha moment when I realized that my scientific knowledge and expertise were proficient enough to run my own functioning lab if I had access to the appropriate resources. Just because I was no longer planning to pursue an academic career, didn’t mean I had to give up my love for science, exploration, and discovery. After much research and fantasizing in my mind about the layout and projects I would undertake in my home laboratory, I came across the do-it-yourself biology (DIY-bio) movement online, and was excited to find out that I wasn’t alone, this was a ‘thing’, and awesome projects were being completed in independent private labs across the world.
The DIY-bio movement is an umbrella term for people doing molecular and synthetic biological experiments in unconventional settings (eg. at home or away from regulated academic/industry environments). While individuals have been doing biological experiments in this manor for centuries, the popularity and falling cost of molecular biological equipment lead DIY-bio to be formally coined in 2008 by biologist Jason Bobe and Mackenzie Cowell. There are currently ~3,500 self-proclaimed DIY-biologist in the US and more than 120 community labs worldwide. Biohacking, another term for the movement, simply means reverse engineering and modifying biotechnology and is often avoided because of the negative connotations associated with the word hacking.
Popular locations for DIY labs include garages, basements, spare bedrooms, and rented community lab space. For example, Genespace in Brooklyn is one of the largest community labs in the world. A functioning molecular biology lab has become increasingly affordable and is possible to set up for ~$1,000. There are even instructions available for DIYing PCR machines, centrifuges, and gel electrophoresis chambers that can be made with common materials found around the home or other easily accessible locations for under $100. DIY biologists with academic backgrounds are often lucky and can snag old lab equipment their former institutions may be tossing out. Online sources like eBay are other options for purchasing discounted lab equipment.
Typical projects can range from super simple activities to advanced undertakings depending on the experience level on the researcher. Most DIY biologist have little formal training and are happy learning basic techniques in their spare time. However, advanced DIYers have been able to research fascinating and complex topics including glow-in-the-dark bacteria/plants, DNA barcoding (to analyze unknown canine fecal matter samples left in a yard), discovering new antibiotics, Bio-printers, and DIY body enhancement (real life X-men). There are even DIY CRISPR-Cas9 kits, which raise serious ethical concerns, in this unregulated space.
Aside from the obvious ethical concerns that come with individuals who aren’t professionally trained having access to genetic modification protocols, there are also several safety concerns that must be addressed. For example, the release of antibiotic resistance genes into the wild, dumping of toxic chemicals into the water supply, or the development of bioweapons by individuals with ill will are all reasons pointing to why this space needs to be properly regulated.
Several organizations aim to bring the DIY-bio movement to the public eye, thus prompting regulation, through the establishment of several international synthetic biology competitions. In short, these competitions utilize ‘biobricks,’ small single function DNA units that can be assembled together in order to create functional ‘machines’ that operate inside a cell (a biological Lego model). Currently, there are over 500 teams that compete at the iGEM and io9 Mad Science competitions annually. In 2016, for example, the high school age group winners developed E. coli biosensors that detect heavy metal and pesticide contamination in herbs.
Once regulatory practices are optimized, biohacking has the potential to allow rare disease and other nontraditionally funded topics to be studied. This will be possible by crowd-funding (which I plan to utilize) and the establishment of private grants. Specifically, I plan to use my graduate training and independent lab to give back to the community and to also further explore the unknown biological mechanisms associated with herbal remedies and other holistic health topics. I hope to inspire the youth of Newark, NJ and other inner cities to have a love for molecular biology by relating it to problems they deal with daily and the potential they have to help solve them. I also hope to have a team of high school or undergraduates compete at the iGEM competition in the coming years.
Yes, I’m leaving the formal academic setting behind, but there’s no way I would ever give up my love for exploration and innovation. I am simply refocusing my efforts in a way that will allow me to research the topics important to me. What are your thoughts on the DIY-bio movement? Will you miss the bench when you transition away from academia? How do you plan on keeping your basic love for science alive when you aren’t an active researcher anymore?