A couple of years ago a group of students collected sushi samples from restaurants and grocery stores around New York revealing, to their astonishment, fraud in the local dining industry.
Using DNA barcodes, they were able to prove that many restaurants substituted expensive delicacies with alternatives of cheaper or different origin. They were not trained biologists, but still had the confidence and enough knowledge to adapt biotechnologies to their own investigations.
This new type of biological literacy has parallels with the early stages of the open source computing movement. But biological organisms do not follow the neat logic of a software programme: they interact in unpredictable ways; they need care and time in order to grow; and, fundamentally, they come with the unknowns of natural systems rather than the order of manmade technologies.
These factors limit the analogy with the success of open source computing; they limit the potential success of amateur biologists. So how much is DIY biology like learning to code, or really more like learning to type?
DIYbio - the backyard labs
DIYbio is a worldwide network of amateur biologists whose objective is ensuring there are accessible facilities for those fascinated in biology, who want to develop their interest in an open and safe setting.
Setting up a grass roots biolab is not a cheap activity (as these Nature estimations suggest), but this was also the case for the first commercial mainframe computers. Likewise the computer revolution, the hub of DIYbio appears to be located in the United States. The first open for public biolabs where the NYC Genspace and Silicon Valley's Bio Curious. Since then, multiple similar projects launched around the world including: BioSpace in Canada, MadLab in Manchester and the BioArtLab in the Netherlands. More about DIYbio can be read on their website.
This video explains how the DIYbio movement works in practice, thanks to Oliver Medevik and Ellen Jorgensen from Genspace.
Running a DIY lab requires a set of hardware.
One of these is the Open PCR (polymerase chain reaction) - a DNA photocopier. This amplifies small pieces of DNA for analysis, giving an opportunity for investigating selected elements of your own DNA or your yoghurt or strawberries.
Another solution for backyard biolabs is the Dremel Fuge - a centrifuge, which thanks to open source hardware and 3D printing is becoming more affordable.
An instrument used predominantly for educational purposes is the Spiker Box. It is a DIY tool box designed for experimenting with insects to observe how the brain works and to hear and see the electrical impulses in neurons. This TEDEd video shows how it works with a cockroach:
Biohacking - experimenting with the DNA
Biohacking emerged as a parallel stream of a relatively new field of science, synthetic biology - a discipline focused on combining elements of life sciences with engineering.
Biohacking - like other forms of hacking - relies on advances in computer technologies which permit easy assembly and experiment with hardware (in the case of biohacking, nucleotides) and software elements. And it seems to create a similar sort of hype among its early adopters that computer hacking did decades earlier. The kind of Chinese whispers that this creates between imagined technologies and current science are beautifully illustrated by this blog post on how hype effects the future of science: The Prozac Yoghurt effect.
In this respect biohacking is not far from the movement of the quantified self, a group of users and tool makers who share a common interest in knowledge about their bodies and use different sensing and tracking technologies to gather data about themselves. Initiated by technologists Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf in 2009, Quantified Self was already a Hot Topic covered by Nesta this year.
An overview of biohacking is well presented by Derek Jacoby's talk at TEDx in Canada:
A more controversial direction of biohacking has been covered this summer by The Verge in an article on America's new cyborgs.The piece described the sub-culture of disciples of the cyberpunk vision - body hackers, who decide to experiment with their bodies through augmenting into them digital devices. A pioneer of these developments is the British cyberneticist Kevin Warwick who was the first to augment electrodes into the median nerve of his hand.
A short article and interview with body hackers can be read in this article.
Biological literacy and citizen science
Biological literacy has been fostered among the wider public through the development of citizen science (research collaborations between scientists and volunteers), which in the last few years, especially thanks to the use of digital technologies considerably increased. Examples include iNaturalist, Project Noah and WildLab which are all platforms for documenting global biodiversity with the use of digital technologies.
The sushi scandal presented in the introduction (this table reveals what was actually in the menu) was in fact a good example of citizen science, as it showed how biological literacy enabled students to make a difference to the health of their city.
A more remote, but still engaging project is the Whale Song Project, where participants help marine researchers localise and understand what whales have to say.
Where is there potential to do the same thing in the UK? Could biohacking help businesses to change the way they operate too? What are the limits of this kind of literacy, and what kind of expert can we realistically become without a PhD in biochemistry?