Hacked together: A home-built thermal cycling instrument made by Cathal Garvey from a coffee can and heat gun cost less than $80. It is used to copy DNA molecules. Many commercial versions cost more than $1,000.
Nor is everyone as impressed by the movement as Church is. “I would be a little skeptical what is the endpoint of all this,” says Declan Soden, the Cork Cancer Research Centre biologist whose lab Garvey once studied in. “If you are trying to develop a treatment for cancer using molecular biology, the amount of time and effort and resources is pretty considerable, and the regulatory constraints are a lot tighter,” says Soden, whose lab has an annual budget of $3 million. “I think that puts it out of the league of do-it-yourself hobbyists.”
Another worry is that hobbyists will be flushing bacteria down household sinks, or even creating dangerous germs. Soden says Garvey was a “very, very bright” student who was too impatient to work in a large academic laboratory. “My concern is what you’re doing is changing bacteria, and that may present a risk to the general public,” he says.
Even so, some futurists think citizen biology could one day rival industrial biotechnology, much as open-source software challenges commercial products. In 2007, Freeman Dyson predicted that leadership in biotechnology would eventually shift away from large corporations like Monsanto to kitchen laboratories, becoming “small and domesticated rather than big and centralized.”
One company that sees the DIY trend as a business opportunity is Autodesk. The software maker, which sells high-powered design programs for engineers and architects, has recently begun sponsoring college genetic-engineering competitions and is developing software to aid biologists in their goal of re-wiring the genes of bacteria so that they will make fuel or drugs. “Our current generations expect to make a difference in the world, and they expect the material world to respond to them,” says Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk’s chief technology officer. “Biology is going to be part of that. While I agree that the science is not fully accessible to people, we see it being commoditized fast.”
After paying a $325 license fee, Garvey won approval last July from Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency to create genetically modified microbes in his mother’s home. His “Class 1” lab rating lets him work only with germs that pose “negligible risk” to the public or the environment.
Garvey’s current goal is to develop a suitable system for amateur biologists who want to genetically modify bacteria. The bacterium E. coli, common in university labs, isn’t so easy to work with. It smells, eats expensive media, and has a bad public reputation as the cause of toxic stomach infections. Instead, Garvey is trying to establish a common soil bacterium, Bacillus subtilis, as an open-source standard. “B. subtilis has a blank-slate reputation,” he says.
Using his computer, Garvey designed a circular ring of 3,200 DNA letters, which he paid a contract lab in Texas $1,300 to synthesize and mail to him. It’s a miniature chromosome called a plasmid that the B. subtilis bacteria will absorb. To endow a germ with new traits (say, fluorescence, or the smell of rain on a sidewalk), just splice the needed DNA into the plasmid.
Garvey calls his construct “Indie Biotech Backbone 1.0,” and he plans to sell it to other biohackers. “Now that we have some tools, the hardest question is what to do with it,” he admits. For his own part, he imagines reprogramming grass to make diesel fuel—the sort of thing he could plant outside and let grow. “The dream,” he says, “is to program life, play around, where it doesn’t cost you anything to fail.”