April 24, 2013 | by Monica Polewski
On March 17, I attended the L.A. Biohacker’s Lab grand re-opening event. Like something out of a science-fiction movie, the lab is located in a derelict part of the industrial area of Los Angeles. The lab is inside a building that sells doors (complete with showroom) and across the street from the “L.A. Gun Club” indoor shooting range. I entered the lobby and pushed the button of the rickety looking elevator, next to a defunct telephone booth. Up to the “penthouse” 6th floor, I walked into a bare, concrete room with some of the most interesting people I have ever seen in my life — Tor, with piercings and sleeve tattoos of chemical structures; Natalia, the Russian neuroscientist from UCLA; Dan, an environmental lawyer in his day job; and Cory, a Caltech Ph.D. student working on plant biology — all congregated for one specific purpose: to empower citizens with scientific knowledge and spread the word of do it yourself biology, or DIYbio. One may wonder what DIYbio and biohacking is all about. According to Marcus Wohlsen’s book Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, biohacking is “about engineering elegant, creative, self-reliant solutions to doing biology while relying not on institutions but wits.” The hacking is in finding the solution through people in the community focusing on the problem while having access to the tools and knowledge — and the freedom — to solve those problems. Biohacking is based on the DIYbiology movement, which “is an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety.” The history of DIYbio began as early as 2005 when it was demonstrated that DNA purification was possible with simple household items. The movement slowly began to grow and became a popular topic at conferences such as the Outlaw Biology Summit at UCLA held in January 2010, and informational sessions such as those held by the Machine Project in April 2010. As the movement evolved, cooperatives such as San Francisco’s BioCurious, the first hacker space for biotech, and L.A. Biohackers emerged, where biohackers pooled their resources and created “hacker spaces” to share knowledge, reduce costs and increase scientific creativity. Null Space Labs, a hackerspace focused on computers and technology, opened their doors to L.A. Biohackers, which set up “biocorner” on the third floor of the electronics lab. However, a few years later, L.A. Biohackers accumulated too much equipment and relocated to their new home in Downtown L.A. These biohackers write their own computer codes, build their own laboratory equipment from scratch (Cory had built an interesting bacterial growth chamber that pumped in nitrogen and carbon dioxide for his nitrogenase directed evolution project) and design their own biological systems. L.A. Biohackers also offers classes for the “biocurious” to learn about synthetic biology, molecular biology, plant transformations and personal genomics. The best part about the grand (re)opening is that I witnessed how this community of biohackers empowered a young scientist with the scientific knowledge and equipment to complete his Orange County Science Fair project. Keoni is an 8th grader and biohacker that is currently creating a halo-bacteria NRC-1 plasmid using the Gibson assembly method. I, for one, had no idea what the Gibson method was and had to perform a quick Internet search to figure out what this junior high genius was talking about. This method was invented just four years ago and allows for the joining of multiple DNA fragments in a single isothermal reaction. It requires no restriction enzyme digests of the DNA fragments and the vector backbone can also be synthesized by PCR. I had the pleasure of speaking with Keoni’s mother, who supports Keoni’s scientific curiosity by driving him across the city to the L.A. Biohacker’s lab just so that Keoni can perform electrophoresis verification of his PCR fragments. She and her husband have spent thousands of dollars on lab equipment for their son’s at-home laboratory and have allowed him to take over the family kitchen to run experiments because according to Keoni, it’s “the best room in the house with proper lighting, proper temperature and no drafts.” Keoni has an extreme passion for science, is self-taught, relying on the Internet for scientific protocols and explanations of scientific concepts, and is great at troubleshooting and optimizing his experiments. I was blown away by how incredibly smart and motivated Keoni is and saw first-hand how the biohacking community promoted open access to the tools and expertise to help this young fellow scientist. Biohackers and DIY biologists see that scientific research is becoming more and more inaccessible with the growth of the biotechnology sector, changes in intellectual property rights at universities and the lack of affordable tools. Biohackers want to set research free and argue that the tools of biotechnology should be available and affordable to all. For instance, while most PCR machines start at around $6,000, the DIY movement has reverse engineered this expensive tool to create OpenPCR devices that sell for around $599. Thus, L.A. Biohackers aim to provide the space and affordable tools for people to get their own home projects started, just like Keoni and his halo-bacteria plasmid.
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