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Doing Biotech in My Bedroom

A new generation of biologists embraces the do-it-yourself ethic of computer programming.
February 14, 2012

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.

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.”

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