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Baking the Cake of Life with Do-It-Yourself Biology by Dan Garry

In the 1970s, a group of technophiles in Menlo Park, California, formed an informal tinkering group called the Homebrew Computer Club. The meetings served as a forum where anyone could present any original designs and discuss new innovations in computing. These amateur hobbyists were working on some of the novel issues with computing at the time. The club’s members, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the co-founders of Apple, would eventually become leaders of the computer revolution in the 1980s.

The recent development of do-it-yourself biology is inspired in part by the success stories of the Homebrew Computer Club. Doit- yourself biology, known as DIYbio, is a recent movement to make molecular biology and genetic engineering available to amateurs. Unlike the paper newsletters used by the Homebrew Computer Club, websites and blogs organize the DIYbio community. The main website focusing on DIYbio is The website describes itself as “an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety” [1]. The blog includes sections on projects, press, forums, mailing lists, and even an event calendar to organize meet-ups in the cities of Boston, New York, Chicago, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle [1]. An associated Google group, with over 1,200 members posting 9,000 messages over two years, is also a source of information for hobbyists [2]. All of this information is freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Due to this accessibility, the actual number of people who have accessed the Google group is even larger because of lurkers, people who follow a message board without actually joining as members. The lurkers-to-posters ratio has been estimated to be as high as 100 to 1 [3]. If that ratio is accurate, over 1,000,000 people have seen or follow the DIYbio Google group. It is clear the DIYbio movement is growing and likely to continue into the foreseeable future as more people get involved.

Yet most of the scientific information used by DIY biologists does not come from but from openwetware. org. Openwetware is a biology wiki, meaning that anyone can incorporate edits for the purpose of improving organization and communication in biology research [4]. This wiki has almost 15,000 pages that have been viewed 35,000,000 times and edited by over 7,500 users [4]. Openwetware is the brainchild of Stanford bioengineering professor Drew Endy and computer science professor Tom Knight of MIT. It is their hope that they “accumulate enough information on openwetware such that a person with little lab experience could, for example, go to the DNA Ligation page, read it and be able to carry out a successful DNA ligation reaction” [4].

While the openwetware site seems tailor-made for interested DIY biologists, its primary intent is to facilitate growth in the field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is distinguished from the stereotypical biology by its focus on engineering and simplification of complex biological processes. Synthetic biology hopes to catalyze a new wave of research innovation and coincidentally aligns well with the amateur agenda of DIYbio. Endy’s mission fits clearly with that of DIY biologists: “[m]y motivation is that years from now, anybody who wants to [can] dream up a useful biological system and pull it off, without having to go through this whole big research process to do it” [5].

With this motivation in mind, Endy not only launched the openwetware project, but also created the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The iGEM competition, an undergraduate synthetic biology competition started in 2003 at MIT, has expanded to include over 1,800 participants from across the world in the 2010 competition [6]. In the competition, students at their home universities use recombinant DNA technology to create various novel biological systems using synthetic biology. Some of the recent iGEM competition submissions are useful and impressive: an E. coli strain engineered to treat inflammatory bowel disease, a synthetic vaccine candidate for H. pylori, a heavy metal-cleaning bacteria, and many more [6]. Since the competition applies synthetic biology, competitors do not have to re-invent the wheel each time they begin a project, because they have access to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. This Registry allows iGEM teams to search through an online catalogue and mail-order a physical part, or “BioBrick,” from a catalog of thousands of DNA parts [7]. These BioBricks are “[p]hysical parts in the DNA Repository [that] have been designed to be assembled into systems using normal cloning techniques based on restriction enzymes, purification, ligation, and transformation” [7]. The standardization of these DNA segments allows for easy assembly, so that a variety of parts can work together, giving synthetic biology its power.

Unfortunately, the Registry is accessible to iGEM participants only, and DIY biologists are barred from entering in the iGEM competition. In spite of this, there is some hope that the Registry may be opened to the public in the future. A January 2010 draft of the “BioBrick Public Agreement” outlines legal details involving the public contribution and distribution to and from the Standard Registry of Biological Parts. This draft agreement is a promising sign that the leaders of the BioBrick Foundation are sincere in their desire for public access [8].

Access to the DNA parts would allow DIY biologists to gain recognition and legitimization by creating genetically engineered organisms just as impressive as those made by iGEM teams. Even without access to the Registry, DIY biologists will continue to create genetically engineered organisms on their own. Because of affordable genetic engineering technology and the ease of Internet shopping, it has become feasible to purchase the machines and materials necessary to set-up a DIYbio lab at home. The cost to setup a DIYbio lab stems from mechanical equipment and the consumables like plasticware and reagents. By using Ebay and other websites, it is possible to purchase the necessary mechanical equipment such as a microcentrifuge, pipettors, agarose gel box, powerpack, dry bath incubator, convection incubator, UV transilluminator, and PCR thermocycler, all for under $1,000 [9]. A determined and creative DIY biologist could easily start a home or garage lab in which extensive genetic engineering can occur with these machines and a few other reagents. There is presently no regulation to keep a DIY biologist from ordering lab equipment and reagents from companies over the internet: all it takes is a name, address, and valid credit card.

Potential for Bioterrorism

While most DIY biologists may have pure intents, the very act of setting up an amateur lab allows for the capacity to use genetic engineering technology for nefarious purposes, like bioterrorism. Bioterrorism can occur by a multitude of unique pathogen modifications, such as those that would render vaccination ineffective, introduce drug resistance, or enable detection evasion [10]. This variety of possible pathogen modifications together with the vast numbers of potential pathogens makes bioterrorism difficult to deter. The federal government attempts to regulate access to certain pathogens by restricting use and transfer of certain select agents and toxins such as anthrax, botulinum, toxin-producing Clostridium, and smallpox [11]. These regulations succeed in tracking which conventional labs use these pathogens are only partially effective, because personnel restriction criteria exclude only those who have committed felony offenses [11]. The overall effectiveness of these regulations is further diminished because many possible pathogens, such as influenza, are not on the restricted list. The wide availability of pathogens in the environment, the minute quantity necessary for harm, and the ease of reproduction in the body make bioterrorism worrisome and difficult to combat, much less regulate.

Regulation of DIYbio

Conventional, institution-based biological research has certain procedures that ensure safe and legal research. The need for safety-based regulation among those participating in genetic engineering was recognized early on by scientists who assembled in 1975 at the now-historic Asilomar Conference. The purpose of the conference was to “review scientific progress in research on recombinant DNA molecules and to discuss appropriate ways to deal with potential biohazards of this work” [12]. The Asilomar Conference led to voluntary regulation of genetic engineering and “led to the NIH [National Institutes of Heath] assuming responsibility for promoting safe conduct of such experiments and the subsequent publication of the NIH Guidelines” [10]. The NIH Guidelines establish Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) to review biotechnology research involving potential risk stemming from the use of recombinant DNA technology [10]. These IBCs are part of a larger system of regulation by the NIH. While they seem like a comprehensive system of coverage, the NIH Guidelines are only applicable to research at any institution financially supported by the NIH. Therefore, any research done by DIY biologists is outside of this regulatory framework. Because of the novelty of DIYbio, there is currently no alternative route to integrate DIYbio into this regulatory framework.

The regulatory gap of DIYbio can be dealt with in a number of ways, ranging from doing nothing, to integrating DIYbio into current framework, to self-government, to a complete ban. Inaction would allow DIYbio to continue to operate and is only valid if the existing potential risks are tolerable. If they are intolerable, then additional regulation is necessary to reach an acceptable risk level. One option is to establish voluntary IBCs within the DIYbio community. However, this could lead to more problems because some DIY biologists may choose not to participate. A voluntary structure would also lack the necessary enforcement measures to be effective; nothing could keep the participants from later changing their minds at any disagreeable restrictions. While there is the possibility of making the voluntary NIH review process mandatory, it would be difficult for a government agency like the NIH to execute authority without some sort of enabling legislation. Another regulative possibility is self-governance. While self-governance in the form of lab standards and voluntary training or licensing may help ensure safe lab practices, by its voluntary nature, self-regulation lacks any mechanism of enforcement.

A final, and most extreme, regulatory regime is to completely ban all DIYbio research. Similar to a mandatory NIH review process, a complete ban on DIYbio would most likely require some sort of legislation instead of unilateral action by a government agency like the NIH. A complete ban, comparable to the failed prohibition of alcohol, would keep many from pursuing DIYbio research while pushing the rest of the DIYbio research into a potentially less safe state of obscurity.

The relationship between DIYbio and conventional research could learn a lesson from the relationship between large breweries and microbreweries during Prohibition. The prohibition of alcohol caused many small breweries to go out of business while allowing large, multinational brewing corporations to develop. Recently, microbreweries across the country have reemerged to offer a variety of unique products not made by conventional breweries. Consumers now enjoy both well-known and artisan beers. In a similar way DIYbio has emerged not to compete but to complement conventional research. Researchers and the general public can only stand to benefit by the innovation and the education DIYbio can provide. Because of these benefits, the governing agencies should open a dialogue to encourage DIY biologists to voluntarily submit experiments of concern for review in return for access to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

Dan Garry is an undergraduate at Arizona State University


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