Do-it-yourself: Cathal Garvey, 26, poses in the biology laboratory he created in his mother’s spare bedroom.
In a spare bedroom of his family’s house in County Cork, Ireland, Cathal Garvey is repeating the feats that led to the dawn of the biotechnology age. He’s growing bacteria. He’s adding DNA. He’s seeing what happens.
“To transform bacteria was once a huge deal, a new method,” he explains. “Today, you can do it with Epsom salt and an over-the-counter brand of laxatives.”
Garvey, who is 26, dropped out of a PhD program at a big cancer lab two years ago. Instead of giving up on science, however, he started doing it on his own, spending $4,000 to equip a laboratory in his parent’s house. As a member of the “do-it-yourself” biology movement, Garvey takes inspiration from the early days of hobby computers, when garage tinkerers spawned companies like Apple and the rest of the PC industry. The idea now is that anyone—not only big-budget academic labs or large companies—should be able to practice biotechnology.
Garvey was still working toward his PhD when he tried his first at-home experiment: isolating pale-blue bioluminescent bacteria from squid he purchased from a Cork fishmonger. It was a beginner’s experiment, but he says he immediately realized he had a choice to make: “Would I finish and get a few letters after my name, or seize the day and do something that needed to be done?”
His goal, he says, is to show that biology can be done in an open-source fashion, and on a shoestring budget. Instead of beakers, he uses recycled jars. A sterilizer is rigged from a pressure cooker and a hot plate. To feed his germs, he boils potatoes into a starchy mix. “In a university you are trained to think that this is all too expensive and difficult to do on your own,” he says.
DIY biology is part of a wider trend in design that’s sometimes called maker culture: people are using 3-D printing services or cheap, custom electronic circuits to develop prototypes of gadgets, products, or vehicles. Now that amateurs can put rockets into space, what’s to stop them from genetically modifying life forms in the kitchen?
Several DIY biologists have begun making inexpensive equipment so that more people can participate. CoFactor, a California company, now sells a $599 DNA-copying machine called OpenPCR. And via Shapeways, a 3-D printing company, Garvey is selling a plastic test-tube holder he designed. When attached to a drill bit at home, the $50 piece becomes a fast-spinning centrifuge. Near San Francisco, there’s now a 2,400-square-foot laboratory called BioCurious, where community members can test their molecular-biology skills.
George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, helped pioneer the DIY movement in biology. One reason he thinks the trend can’t be dismissed is that the cost of both synthesizing and decoding DNA molecules is now falling five times faster than the cost of computing power. That makes it “very interesting to watch,” he says.
Some would-be garage biologists have run into obstacles. After meeting for beers at a pub in September, a DIY bio group in Seattle decided to shut down because it lacked clear goals. Other local groups—without lab space or money—have met a similar fate.