Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tools of the Trade for Do-It-Yourself Biology

Today's Tuesday "Tools of the Trade" for citizen scientists looks at the recent DIYBio movement and the resources available for people interesting in participating.

For those of you who aren't already familiar with it, Do-It-Youself Biology is a growing part of citizen science where participants create their own biotechnology labs and perform biochemical experiments in their own homes.  Sometimes called "BioHackers", the field has received it's greatest notoriety for synthetic biology, where scientists manipulate an organism's genetic material (often by implanting genes from one organism into another) to create new features not previously found in nature.  But there are also many others types of DIYBilogy.  Some participants have used these techniques to find new treatments for disease, such as the famous Lorenzo's Oil example where devoted parents find a new treatment for their son's rare and deadly neurological disease.  More recently, DIYBio enthusiasts have discovered potential markers for heart disease that have led to larger government-funded studies to validate the experiments and expand the research.

If you are interested in the DIYBio movement in general there was a great article in Discover magazine "Dawn of the Biohackers, October 2011" that I highly recommend.  It doesn't provide much on the "How" of DIYBio but does a great job of exploring the culture, highlighting scientific advances in the field, and forecasting the field's future.  For citizen scientists like me it is great seeing the success this movement has had, and this article definitely conveys the excitement flowing from this field.

One thing I find fascinating about the DIYBio field is that it has taken an area of science that seems highly complicated and resource-dependent and makes it accessible to people on shoe-string budgets.  For amateur astronomy all one needs is a telescope and a night sky, birdwatchers just need a good set of binoculars, and ecologists just need a meadow or stream to take samples...alternatively biotechnology requires expensive machinery and lab space out of most people's reach.  But that's no longer the case as innovators have found ways to make those expensive machines affordable, local groups have sprung up to provide support (and even lab space) for interested participants, and educators have found cheap methods to perform complex analyses using household materials. 

So let's take a look at some of these resources:
  • GarageBio.org: Twice monthly podcast exploring the challenges of DIYBio, interviewing key players in the field and explaining various aspects of the field in layman's terms. As of this posting the organization is still quite new, but they have a high level of excitement and are tackling some important issues. So I encourage you to give them a listen.
  • DIYBio.org: This web site provides links to a variety of biological lab safety resources and links to many local DIYBio organizations citizen scientists can get involved in to learn more about the field.
  • GENspace.org: Web site of a DIYBio organization in the New York area.  The group has put a lot onto this web site, including how-tos for gene-based experiments, links to various problem-specific projects in the DIYBio community, and a variety of classes on synthetic biology and other topics.
  • BioCurious.org: DIYBio incubator in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Biocurious offers lab space, lab equipment, meeting space, classes, and a community of like-minded individuals for citizen scientists to join.  Contacting them is a must for any DIYBio enthusiast in the California area. 
  • CofactorBio: Look here for advanced biotechnology equipment made extremely affordable. Theirmain claim to fame is the Open PCR...this Polymerase Chain Reaction machine allows researchers to take a single sample of DNA and multiply it millions of times for testing. These normally cost thousands of dollars but here they sell make-it-yourself kits for under $600. The company also manufactures the Genelaser kit for isolating specific segments of DNA before amplifying it through PCR.  Samples can then be analyzed and decoded for your own analysis.  In other words, Cofactor sells everything you need to collect the DNA from a sample material, islate a specific part of the DNA you are interested in, and multiply it for analysis through gel electrophoresis or other methods.
  • OpenWetware.org: Wiki-based collaboration site for sharing DIYBio resources and experience amongst citizen science researchers. If you aren't sure how to perform a scientific technique, or are looking for chemical or biological materials for your research, this is one of the best places to look.
  • MethodBook.net: Collection of biological techniques and protocols similar to OpenWetware.  The big difference is many of these are designed for use in academic or industrial laboratories, but many are easily adaptable for DIYBio use. 
Hopefully these links will help you get started.  I plan in the future to post about some specific DIYBio projects  that you can get involved in.  But for now a brief explanation of the field and a listing of resources should feed your appetite and help you get started.  Remember, the field of synthetic biology may look difficult and expensive, but getting started really is easy. Fortunately there are many people just waiting to help.


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