By James Brown, Education and Public Engagement Officer, Biochemical Society
“The future is here, but it is not well distributed.” With these words, Oron Catts (SymbioticA, University Western Australia) set the scene for not only this meeting of community DIY biologists, but also for the worldwide biohacking community. Like La Paillasse in Paris, or GenSpace in New York, the London Biohackspace is a community run molecular biology and microbiology lab, and on 17 November they held the first Open Biology Forum, London which was an opportunity for members of this community to gather and meet whilst discussing the possibilities and goals of open biology.
For those not in the know, the London Biohackspace is a containment level 1 laboratory with a wonderfully eccentric collection of recycled lab equipment, home-made solutions and even a re-purposed pasty oven being used as an incubator. The emphasis is firmly on providing open access to lab equipment and bench space, for use in a safe manner, for individual or collaborative projects, following the DIYBio code of ethics (see box). There’s a strong sense that the techniques and the experiments that they are offering should be available to as wide an audience as possible – that everyone should be able to pursue their curiosity about the natural world.
With a range of speakers, a lot of ground was covered. With a strong contingent of artists present, there was a lot of discussion about inter-disciplinarity and the exciting work that is being done at the interfaces of the traditional subject boundaries. Oron Catts’ work with SymbioticA, the Art/Science MA at Central St Martin’s and the BASc courses offered at UCL were all given as examples of groups of people who are using biology in new ways and engaging with science and research in non-traditional settings. With Central St Martin’s planning a lab for their artists and UCL looking at including an open space in their new campus in east London, it seems that this is an idea whose time has come.
Continuing the theme of access, Bethan Wolfenden introduced us to Bento Lab, the portable molecular biology kit and community that’s bringing research to those who need it. Bethan gave us examples of the beer brewer who’s genotyping yeast to find out the effects on the brewing process, the mushroom forager who’s using Bento Lab to identify his finds as part of a citizen science project, and the numerous schools who have benefitted from being able to carry out genetic experiments.
With a new Biomakespace being developed in Cambridge, it seems that there is an increasing awareness that DIY biology and interdisciplinary collaboration help drive innovation, increase the democracy of science and have powerful public engagement benefits. Events such as the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition, which this year had 5,600 participants across 42 countries, are bringing together more members of this community and showing what is possible with enthusiasm and passion. The Juicy Print project from the London BioHackspace is a wonderful example: creating a 3D printer that is fed on orange juice, prints using bacterial cellulose and is controlled by light. If that doesn’t capture your imagination and get you wanting to go along on a Wednesday evening, I don’t know what will!