On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Bruce DePuyt
Far from multimillion dollar labs at universities, an enthusiastic movement of amateur scientists is changing the field of biology. These do-it-yourself explorers are taking experiments from the lab table to their living room tables using only rudimentary equipment and innate curiosity. We look at what’s happening in this nascent branch of science, and explore concerns over “biohacking.”
- David Rejeski Director, Synthetic Biology Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
- Daniel Grushkin Vice president and a founder of Genspace; Freelance Science Writer
- Jason Bobe Co-founder of DIYbio.org; Executive Director of PersonalGenomes.org
MR. BRUCE DEPUYTFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Bruce DePuyt sitting in for Kojo. They are called outlaws, citizen scientists, garage biologists and even biohackers. Whatever you call them, this ragtag group of self-appointed biologists is tackling some of the most important scientific questions of our day, from analyzing DNA to finding cures for cancer, and they're doing it from the comfort of their own homes.
MR. BRUCE DEPUYTThese do-it-yourself scientists set up their own labs. And when they need equipment, they improvise. But as this group grows, questions about how they're regulated and what exactly they're doing behind closed doors are occupying officials at the highest levels. Joining us today here on the program, David Rejeski. He's director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He's with us here in the studio. It's good to see you. Thanks very much for coming in.
MR. DAVID REJESKIThank you.
DEPUYTJoining us from the studios of the Argo Network in New York, Dan Grushkin. He's vice president and a founder of Genspace, which is a community laboratory in Brooklyn. He's also a freelance science writer. Dan, good to have you with us.
MR. DANIEL GRUSHKINThanks. It's nice to be here.
DEPUYTAnd from the studios of KQED in San Francisco, Jason Bobe. He's co-founder of DIYbio, which is an organization that makes biology accessible to amateurs. Jason, thanks for getting up early to be with us here on the East Coast this morning.
MR. JASON BOBENo problem. Thanks for having me, Bruce.
DEPUYTJason, let me begin with you. There are, I'm told, more than 2,000 people worldwide who consider themselves garage biologists. Give us a sense of who they are and what kind of projects they're working on.
BOBEWell, it started in a pub in Boston about three years ago, and there was a small group of individuals who were interested in doing biology as an amateur pursuit, as a hobby, and from there, over the past three years, the number of regional groups in different cities has grown to about 20 in 10 countries. And the center -- the most -- the centerpiece of the activity is an online mailing list, where there are about 2,000 members, but there are probably, if you add together all the different regional groups and cities around the world like London and Paris and Seattle and Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Bangalore, even Nicaragua -- there's a new group in Nicaragua, one being contemplated in Panama -- there are probably somewhere around -- we're not really sure, but maybe 5,000 people total around the world who are at least interested in doing biology.
BOBEThere's a smaller percentage of the individuals who are interested in doing biology are actually doing projects, and these range from DNA sequencing for environmental surveillance, looking at what, you know, bacteria and viruses are moving through the cities, or medical devices, low-cost medical devices and low-cost lab equipment, all the way to basic molecular biology protocols, things like bacterial transformation, genetic engineering or -- and people are getting really excited about the new field of synthetic biology as well.
DEPUYTWell, let me ask David, who's here in the studio about synthetic biology. Give us a little bit of -- a sense of what that entails exactly.
REJESKIWell, synthetic biology is become a pretty significant field in and of itself. It's kind of an evolutionary step in biology. Some might say it's actually -- it has the potential to become revolutionary, but it involves actually the design or engineering of new biological organisms that can do new things that didn't happen before. And I -- you begin to see some of the examples come out. I mean, people have already been able to reengineer yeast, for instance, to produce anti-malarial vaccines. That's very close to commercialization. Also the ability to take organisms that would seem very common, yeast or E. coli, and, again, engineer those to produce biofuels, not sort of the ethanol that we have in our gasoline but fuels that you can actually go directly in the tank with.
REJESKISo this is an area of biology that's, you know, becoming, I think, transformational in terms of what it might offer to society in the future. But obviously, this is a level up of what sort of the DIY folks are doing, but it's important to remember how we started with computers. You know, the fairly early computer folks actually came out of the Model Railroad Club at MIT and gained access to a mini computer. And then, we had a whole bunch of people that one would classify certainly that -- at that time as amateurs, that began building their own equipment, and those grew into the Bill Gateses and the Steve Jobs of the world.
DEPUYTDan, you're seeing this phenomenon very much from the community level. As we said at the outset, you're the founder of Genspace, a community lab in Brooklyn. Are we really seeing people with the truest broad spectrum of scientific knowledge and background, or is it, when you get right down to it, people who were already pretty smart, pretty informed, pretty much with some kind of a scientific background to even have a sense of where one would begin?
GRUSHKINWe have both, actually. We have people with 30 years experience in the lab as microbiologists, and then, we have artists who were just interested in using a new palette. So it's a real diversity. What's great about that is that it allows the microbiologists to teach the newbies, if you will, how to do the actual science part. I think what the artists and people like me bring to the microbiologists is a fresh sense of what you could do with the science.
DEPUYTPaint a picture for us, if you would, on -- I'm trying to picture your lab. I've read where much of the equipment that is used is improvised. It's secondhand. It's cobbled together from a great variety of sources. Give us a sense of what a day is like and what simply this community lab looks like.
GRUSHKINOkay. So before I describe the community lab, I should describe where we started it. We started in my living room, and very quickly, we learned that working out of your living room doesn't quite work. And the reason for that is pretty obvious. You live in your living room, and you don't want to share it with your biology, your experiments.
GRUSHKINSo after about a year of searching, we found that artist space -- it's basically a seven-floor building on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and there are architects and furniture designers. And in this space in the middle of the floor, we built out what looks like a big glass box. In that glass box, we have all donated equipment. All of it works, and all of it's pretty good. We could do basic science. We can genetically engineer bacteria and yeast, but basically, all of it is from found materials. For example, the lab table or the lab bench is a recycled industrial kitchen table, which works perfectly.
DEPUYTYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. You can e-mail us by sending an e-mail to email@example.com. We'll go to the phones in just a moment. We'll talk with Anthony first. He's out in Annapolis. Jason, last summer, a Brooklyn Web developer created a nuclear reactor in his studio. We can assume, I take it, that most DIY scientists are not operating at this level?
BOBERight. So they're -- you know, right now, Genspace is really leading the charge on -- you know, they're setting up a model community lab, and they have really the most resources of anybody in the community. There are others who are trying to set up home workshops and work from home, but those -- so far, most of those tend to be focused on electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and developing low-cost devices and -- or some of the project -- one of the projects that I work on, I don't do any of the wet work myself, but I outsource it all to companies. And so I would send DNA samples off to a lab and get data in return. And so I think there's going to be a lot of that.
BOBEIt's not clear yet whether or not the -- which mode of operating home workshops versus community labs are really going to predominate in the next 10 to 20 years. It's -- you know, it took a tremendous amount of effort for Genspace to get set up, and there are several other attempts around the world of people to put together community labs. And so that may be the way that people access these technologies. But, on the other hand, there could be some scope of activities that are possible just from a home workshop working in your garage or your basement or a shed.
DEPUYTIt's easy for me to imagine young people, teenagers, kids in high school, perhaps kids in college too, taking an interest in what they're doing during their coursework and wanting to take it to the next level outside of the classroom, outside of the school lab environment, even to really tinker, experiment with and sort of try to connect the dots in a new way and see where some of their thoughts or some of their theories might lead.
DEPUYTIf you know of any teenagers who are interested in doing science outside of school, we welcome your phone calls and your e-mails on this Tuesday here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Bruce DePuyt sitting in for Kojo. Again, our e-mail address here is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we've got phone lines open at 800-433-8850. David, the iGEM competition that MIT has played a significant part in inspiring this movement. Tell us about the competition and the role that it's perhaps had in fostering do-it-yourself biology.
GRUSHKINiGEM stands for the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. It's quite a mouthful. It's occurred over the past few years at IBM and grown, I'd say, similar to what Jason was -- almost exponentially. This involves largely college students. The last iGEM competition, there was over a thousand students there from over a hundred universities around the world. And basically, what they do is they get a -- one can imagine the old Erector Sets. They're getting a box of biological parts that they can play with. That they could put together in new and different ways. That box is delivered to them, and they begin doing experiments with them. And then, they come to MIT -- this happened at the beginning of November last year, to show everybody what they've done, and they have -- there's a competition there.
GRUSHKINThey do some fairly sophisticated work. There's a group in Edinburgh a few years ago that developed a modified E. coli sensor for arsenic in groundwater, which was a huge problem in parts of the world, like Bangladesh or India. So these are kids that are actually beginning to do some work with large commercial applications. They have a strong safety component, which is important. They have to go through a lot of safety protocols. I think the difference between them and the DIY folks is this -- the iGEM competition still takes place in large institutions, largely in universities. So there had been some people in high schools that have been trying to get in.
GRUSHKINThis is very different from the DIY folks where you have non-institutional biology. So the iGEM certainly maybe points us in a direction of what DIYbio might look like in a few years, and certainly, there's some pressure on the iGEM system to let some of the younger kids in, which I think would be quite exciting.
DEPUYTTo the phones we go. Anthony in Annapolis, you're first. You're on the air. Go right ahead, please.
DEPUYTGood morning. Good afternoon.
ANTHONYI wanted to just comment that I've been involved in a hobby. It's raising a breed of cat called Bengal cats for about 20 years, and as you talk about DIY scientists and understanding genetic principles and testing them, I thought that the dog, cat fancy, and pedigreed animals, whether it be pigs, cows or chickens, have kind of been the DYI science experiment that people have been able to take part in for hundreds of years, because that is -- the product is so tangible. It's not really politically correct anymore, but it has allowed people to understand all sorts of things, from colors and pattern inheritance to, you know, just basic principles of Mendelian genetics.
DEPUYTWhat's your background?
ANTHONYWell, actually, I got my degree in animal science at College Park, and I don't work in that field anymore. But when I take my cats out into the public, people are impressed with me because they're domestic cats that looks like a leopard. But it's friendly and purrs. And they actually have some wild, Asian leopard cat genetics in their pedigree, from crossing domestic cats with wild cats. With the only goal being to get the leopard's pattern, but keep every other feature of domestic cats.
ANTHONYAnd that's been accomplished, really, on a do-it-yourself basis by people who wanted to do it and were willing to try trial and error in applying genetic principles. That happens with all animal breeds, whether dogs or cats, or chickens, kind of the oldest do-it-yourself laboratory.
DEPUYTRight. Right. Interesting stuff. Anthony, thanks very much for the call. Jason, any thoughts?
BOBEYeah. Actually, I should add that this is a really interesting area. And there's intersections with DIYbio and what people are calling folk biology. And in particular, artisanal cheeses, brewing beer, these all require specialized microorganisms to work, you know, yeast in beer and different types of bacteria in yogurts and cheeses. And now, with having access to things like DNA sequencing devices -- you know, there are -- this year, there were two desktop DNA sequencing devices that came on the market -- people can get more sophisticated with how they do their hobbies. And even if they are cooking, there are now intersections with some of these new advanced technologies, which are interesting.
DEPUYTWe'll take a break right here. More of our conversation, more of your calls and your emails as we continue here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Bruce DePuyt from NewsChannel 8, sitting in for Kojo today. A break here. We're back with more right after this.
DEPUYTWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Bruce DePuyt, sitting in for Kojo today. We're talking about do-it-yourself biology. It is Tech Tuesday here on the program. Phone lines open for your thoughts as we continue to look at this very homegrown and some would say unstructured and perhaps unregulated pursuit of science at all levels. 800-433-8850 is the number here. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, and we look forward to hearing more from you. We'll go back to the phones, by the way, in just a couple of moments. Let me tell you who's here. Dan Grushkin is with us from New York. He's at the studios of the Argo Network. He's vice president and founder of Genspace, a community lab in Brooklyn. He's also a freelance science writer.
DEPUYTJason Bobe is at KQED in San Francisco. He's cofounder of DIYbio, which is an organization that makes biology accessible to amateurs. And with me here in the studio is David Rejeski. He's director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I'll throw open this question to all of you and just anyone jump in. I'm curious about what happens when there's an aha moment, a eureka moment, if I can phrase it that way without being cliché, in terms of monetizing it, taking it to market, taking it to that next logical step in terms of development, where society, whether it's health care or in some other way, might benefit. What are the challenges and what are steps there, gentlemen? Anybody jump in.
GRUSHKINIt's a difficult question. From the perspective of Genspace, we opened in December, so the aha moment might be a ways away. However, what I'm discovering is that the aha moment is only one step in the process. You come up with a great idea, you implement that great idea, and then you need to find someone who's gonna back you. I'll give you an example. Early on in the DIY process, there -- people discovered a hack, a way to make a $2 webcam into a microscope that's actually quite powerful. It goes to about 150 times magnification, which would be enough to, I don't know, look at the eye of a bug and see it quite large. The issue with that was, okay, you have this great $2 microscope that you can send to schools or use in a collaborative way.
GRUSHKINBut what do you do with that? Well, what we did was we teamed up with a class of mechanical engineers at Hofstra and actually had them build a platform for it and then actually create blueprints for this microscope. What do you do with a microscope? Well, we found a funder who is willing to pay for a hundred of them, and probably next fall what we'll be doing is distributing them in schools all over New York City that don't really have the resources to have something like a powerful microscope in their lab. So there was a big aha, but to actually get that aha into the marketplace, or in this case, it's more of a non-profit idea, there are multiple other steps.
DEPUYTSo, Jason, I guess this is something where the profit motive, the aha, the pursuit of aha moments is really secondary to curiosity, to experimentation and to a pace that comes when you don't have deadlines to meet or investors to satisfy. Fair to phrase it like that?
BOBEYeah. I think that is true for many individuals. But I also think that -- I mean, we've seen, so far, a small cottage industry set up around DIYbio, where there have been individuals, particularly around laboratory equipment and low-cost devices that can be used to do things, you know? So there was a -- there's a gentleman in Ireland who developed a low-cost centrifuge which -- you know, centrifuges can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. And he used CAD software and a 3-D printer to print a small piece of plastic, $10 piece of plastic that you can plug into an electric screwdriver or a Dremel device and then actually get thousands of Gs of a centrifuge for low cost. And so, he sells those online.
BOBEAnd in the Bay Area, there's been a handful of entrepreneurs who have developed low-cost laboratory devices, like something called a PCR machine and a gel electrophoresis box. And so, there certainly is, I think, an entrepreneurial innovation spirit that's inside of the DIYbio community. There are others who feel like -- who are very more -- or I would consider open source fans and would find it distasteful to commercialize too much too soon.
BOBEBut -- so I don't know how long the sort of community spirit will last because I think there's gonna be a very strong commercialization, entrepreneurship opportunities in this community that range from all sorts of things, from, you know, environmental surveillance to monitoring personal health to more advanced things like -- even maybe in the future developing biofuels in a community lab like Genspace.
DEPUYTBack to the phones we go. Khadijah (sp?) in New York City, thanks for calling in. I hope I'm saying your name correctly. Go right ahead, please.
KHADIJAHYes. Yeah, you said it perfectly. Thank you so much for taking my call.
KHADIJAHI'm actually executive director of a new non-profit called BetterBio and have spoken with Dan. Hi, Dan. And I just wanted to call in because you had asked for callers who had high school students who are interested in doing these types of things. And I most definitely do. I'm going to be doing a summer citizen science journalism summer camp. And, say that ten times fast.
KHADIJAHAnd we are -- we have students working with local public libraries as research centers and then working with local biotech companies in New York and Boston, hopefully, expanding into D.C. by the end of the summer actually. And the idea is to get them, not just interviewing scientists, but also, hopefully, getting some hands-on experience, filming, interviewing people in the community that they live in and actually, you know, being part of the process. Now, my concern about that is, I know with DIYbio, historically, it's been kind of people who are naturally drawn into the community. And what I'm interested in is how will you guys be able to do some outreach, some...
KHADIJAH...you know, stretching out your hands to the community to maybe do research that would benefit the lives of the people in the direct, immediate areas around you. And I know this is something Mac Cowell is kind of asking himself up in Boston with Sprout labs. I know the BioCurious guys...
KHADIJAH...in Palo Alto are -- I'm sorry, Mountain View, are also asking this question. And I guess just having the three of you there at NPR together, I was wondering if you can wrap your heads around how, over the coming years, we can bridge that gap and maybe do some DIYbio projects that would interests teens in the inner city.
GRUSHKINSo I think that really resonates with Genspace. If you look at where our lab is, it's sort of on the edge of a not so great neighborhood and on the edge of Park Slope, which is one of the, you know, the fanciest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. And this is something that we address all the time. Genspace came around the idea that, one, we would innovate, and number two, we would educate. So we've already been going out into the community, at various street fairs and whatnot, just showing a simple DNA extraction.
GRUSHKINAnd what we do very often is we have the children out on the street do the experiment themselves. It's perfectly safe. You could do it with household items. But essentially, you smash up a strawberry, put in some chemicals, soap and alcohol. And literally, you can pull the DNA out of the strawberry and look at it with your bare eyes. And we've had a lot of success with that. I think that's a first step. You know, the next step would be for us to go into schools, which is something that we're developing.
DEPUYTKhadijah, thanks very much. Did either of the other two guests have a comment to make on this topic?
BOBESure. So I think that DIYbio, for the community outreach, it's really going to be a factor of the regional DIYbio groups. And I think many of them, particularly Genspace, they want to be seen as a benefit to the community and that they want to be a resource for the community. You know, a place -- I don't want to speak for Genspace, but I've talked to Dan a lot and I've been to Genspace. They really, you know, want to be a place where people can go, get educated about the frontlines about technology, whether or not you're a high school student or just an adult with an interest in biotechnology. And you can hear lectures and seminars, take hands-on classes.
BOBEAnd I see that in a few of the big regional groups. So BioCurious here in the Bay Area have over 400 members who participate in their monthly meet-ups that range from all sorts of topics. And I think that they -- that is a perfect opportunity to get individuals in the community who may not otherwise be interested in science to get them involved in really interesting hands-on projects or get them educated about some of the frontlines of biotechnology.
DEPUYTA number of people who are listening today are offering comments and questions about safety and regulation. When we go back to the phones, which will be in just a moment, we're gonna hear from Sue in Bethesda. So, Sue, please stay on the line. But I want to read a couple of emails first to get this part of our conversation going. Donald has an email where he says, "To be blunt, these labs should be regulated simply due to the need for uniform safety, proper disposal of organics and/or chemicals, and lastly, all biohazards will need formal disposal, including those that may be the product of research."
DEPUYTHetty (sp?) sends in an email that says -- that simply asks, "What are you doing for safety for the worker, for the building, for the neighborhood? Many E. coli types are harmless. Then there are the deadly types that cause outbreaks. When it first came out, lab scientists who knew how to handle botulism safely got sick from the E. coli. So what will happen if a new type of bacteria that's supposed to have some use can't be killed and replicates and does harm?" David, let me begin with you, then we'll talk to the other guests.
REJESKIWell, I think it's a valid concern. And I -- one of the things that we've been doing -- I've actually been working with Jason and Dan -- is trying to get a better sense of just what the issues are. It's a decentralized community. And a lot of the regulations we have are designed to work in industrial laboratories or universities. So we've done some surveys within the community and find out what people are, sort of, dealing with in terms of safety issues. And some of them that come up are exactly what have been mentioned. You know, how do I dispose of this? Can I compost it? What happens if it's flushed down the toilet? Is this likely to mutate?
REJESKIThe other one that comes up is just moving things around. Can I mail things? What happens if I move this out of my house? So I think one of the things that's valuable of having, kind of, a cohesive community is the ability to, kind of, get people's input on what safety issues might be. The other thing we're trying to do is develop safety guidelines that could be easily used by these folks. Because if I hand them a large book of regulations, quite often they won't read it. So we're trying to develop what we call kind of a preflight checklist, the kind of things pilots use before you take off, go through this checklist.
REJESKIThere's also a lot of work that we've begun with the community on developing a code of ethics. This is something you saw traditionally in other amateur communities like amateur rocketry. There's codes of safety. There's codes of ethics. And those have been around for a while. So I think one of the things that's important is the ability to start very early as the community grows to grow an internal safety culture.
DEPUYTYou can imagine all kinds of issues that might flow from this type of exploration, whether it's violating a lease if you're in rented space. You don't want to do anything inadvertently that violates a lease agreement. You don't want to put yourself on the hook for clean-up costs in the event that there's something that proves very difficult to clean up. Nor do you wanna be the tenant who comes in after someone who, you know, has -- with no expectation in your part that there would have been this sort of science work, potentially very beneficial to society, but, you know, potentially messy too in what is now your space. Dan and Jason, jump in, if you will, on this issue of safety and regulation.
BOBEWell, I think these are all, really...
GRUSHKINSo I can only address it from the...
BOBEOh, I'm sorry. Go ahead, Dan.
DEPUYTI'm sorry, guys.
GRUSHKINSorry about that. I can only address it from the point of Genspace. So we took safety very seriously. What we've done is we've made a BSL1 lab, a biosafety level 1 laboratory, which may not look like your standard laboratory, but it certainly meets all the requirements. And we're very serious about maintaining that standard. That also means that we don't use anything that's a pathogen. We only use things that are like an E. coli that operates in a lab. It's safe. It's been used for 40-plus years. Nothing's happened as of yet. And we don't expect anything to -- we're very -- we're pretty serious. Everyone wears their lab gloves, and they have their goggles.
GRUSHKINOne of the things we did when we first decided to put this lab together is we reached out to the FBI. And the reason why we did that was because we didn't want to cause any concern. And actually, over the years, now it's about two years, we've developed a really helpful relationship with them. And I think it's a -- I think, at least Genspace has dealt with this issue.
DEPUYTOf course, the challenge is not getting people to wear their gloves and their goggles on day one or day two. It's six months in when people get comfortable. And sometimes, those safety warnings are common sense, however you wanna think of them. You know, if you get into what you're doing and you forget, you know, to be as diligent as you should. Jason, did you wanna -- this is an important topic.
BOBEYeah, so -- yeah, I think this is a critically important topic to address early. And this is one of the roles that the DIYbio.org can help to provide a layer that ties together these disparate groups around the world and provide some fundamental services, services like access to professional biosafety experts, and also putting together -- with the project that I'm working on with Dave -- putting together handbooks for appropriate safety practices for community labs or even home workshops, and trying to define the scope of activities that are demonstratably safe and trying to highlight those things which are not and to -- and, you know, practices to avoid and practices which are safe. And I think this is the type of thing that we -- this is where I spend majority of my time...
BOBE...when I work on DIYbio-related things is around developing safety practices. Because as we see this community grow all over the world, we're starting to see things like existing hacker spaces. Hacker spaces, there are, you know, 400 of them around the world and they tend -- for the past, they've been around for decades, and they tend to focus on mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, people tinkering with robots and things like that. And they're starting to expand their footprint into biology. And so -- and they may not have 25 years of biotechnology experience like Dan's colleague at Genspace, Ellen, who's -- who helped them set up the lab.
BOBEAnd so, the question is, how do we educate these individuals who wants to get into biology so that they have all of the appropriate safety informations and they can know the types of activities that they can do which are safe and avoid those which are not.
DEPUYTSue in Bethesda, thanks for your patience. You're on the air. Go right ahead, please. Sue, are you still there?
DEPUYTGo right ahead.
SUEThe labs at NIH, they have elaborate systems for where the bacteria are handled. A goggle is nothing. But when you take a live organism and change it, you have no idea how the change is gonna work.
DEPUYTGentlemen? Interesting idea. Interesting thought from Sue.
MR. DAN GRUSHKINRight. So I think we follow all the basic lab standards. We dispose of our trash. We actually have a service that comes and takes our biohazardous trash just like any standard lab. It could be a criticism of any science lab, but I think as we develop these protocols that Jason was talking about, this is sort of the benefit of a community lab that these issues are taken care of for the individual by the collective. It's a good question. It's something that needs to be addressed if you're working at home and certainly in a community lab. But I think as we move forward, we'll see more and more of the groups taking care of that issue.
DEPUYTDo you think the government should keep an eye on what goes on in home biology labs, and to what extent have government regulators already come calling? We'll continue our conversation with David Rejeski, Dan Grushkin and Jason Bobe. It's Tech Tuesday here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Bruce DePuyt, sitting in on this Tuesday. We'll take a break. We'll come back with more right after this.
DEPUYTWelcome back to Tech Tuesday here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Bruce DePuyt from NewsChannel 8, sitting in for Kojo today. We're talking about -- (laugh) stuttering is the next hour. I should hold my stuttering till the next hour. We're talking about do-it-yourself biology. With us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco, Jason Bobe. He is co-founder of DIYbio, an organization that makes biology accessible to amateurs. Dan Grushkin is at the studios of the Argo Network in New York. He is vice president and a founder of Genspace, a community lab in Brooklyn. He's also a freelance science writer. And David Rejeski is with me here in the studio. He is director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
DEPUYTTo what extent -- David, start with you and then go to our guests in the other cities -- to what extent have -- has sort of garage biology, do-it-yourself bio already attracted the interest of government regulators and to what extent should it?
REJESKIWell, I think the most interesting thing that happened recently is the president's bioethics commission put out a major report on synthetic biology in December. And it actually recognized that there was a non-institutional component, the DIY folks. And basically they came out and said that they didn't think there are any serious risks to really novel organisms being generated in non-institutional settings, including the DIYbio community. But they also made the point that we have to keep tabs on it like any emerging technology. You want to continue to update your assessment of the risks and what's going on. I think the problem and the challenge that the government has is they're used to dealing with institutions.
REJESKIIf you have an address, they can find you, they can find you easily. I think it's much more difficult for the government to essentially apply regulations in distributed systems like this. And having said that, certainly mention the FBI has been interested. The National Institutes of Health certainly are interested. We have a coordinated framework for the regulation of biotechnology in the country that involves most of the major government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and also the Department of Agriculture.
REJESKISo I think the issue is one of translation, is how do you take these regulations that were designed to be essentially applied in large institutions and apply them to either community labs or home labs. I think the other thing you're already hearing in the conversation is there may be a whole bunch of local regulations that come into play. Zoning regulations, for instance, or all of these communities where their labs might exist have their own set of environmental regulations. So it's gonna be an interesting balance between what the federal government requires and what you see at a local level. But certainly in a federal level, this is on people's radar screens.
DEPUYTCan you, you know, jump in on this issue of government regulators?
GRUSHKINWell, my sense of it is that we're building a relationship with all these institutions. I think when they see what we do, they're -- they calm down a little. I think early on, no one knew what this movement could do and what it would do. Now that they see these community labs bringing up -- and again, I really believe this, at least for the middle term, this will be the way that do-it-yourself biology is done -- I think that there are people that they can go to and talk to. The nice thing about our community is that it's very open, and we don't hide anything. So if they, you know, if any of these institutions, regulators wanna see what we're doing, we're open about sharing. You know, we're open to the public so that means, you know, the FBI is welcome just like anyone else.
DEPUYTJason, for folks who may have joined us in the middle of our conversation, I want to get back to a concrete sense of the projects that are being worked on out there, the research that's being done and the tinkering, if you will, that's taking place in these labs. Give us a sense of some of the projects you're seeing, that you're aware of and, you know, how it might benefit people whether it's in medicine, in any number of ways that could improve people's lives.
BOBERight. So a few examples of our projects, my pet project is something called the BioWeather Map. And I actually just got my first data set back a few days ago that I'll be posting online in the next week, where I collected dollar bills from people all over the United States. And I had them write down the serial number of the dollar bill and record some other information about where they obtained it, whether or not they got it from a cash register at a restaurant or a coffee shop or out of their wallet, et cetera, and then extracted the DNA from each piece of currency and perform some DNA sequencing of a particular region in the bacterial genome to help us identify all of the bacteria which exists on each of these dollar bills.
BOBEAnd the idea was there are all sorts of applications that can come out of doing something like this, where you can monitor the spread of pathogens. You can identify new species, and you can start to understand whether or not perhaps there are things like geographic signatures. So I can -- I might be able to predict where this bill came from by knowing what composition of bacteria were present on the dollar bill. And so there are, I think, going to be lots of applications of using DNA sequencing to do environmental surveillance and to categorize and catalog species in the biodiversity of different regions.
BOBEAnd there -- earlier, you mentioned teenagers. And in New York City, there was a great example, something called sushi gate, where, using these DNA sequencing technologies, these high school students went and collected sushi from restaurants and grocery stores all over the city. And when they would collect -- would buy this sushi, they would record what type of fish they were being marketed as, so whether or not it was yellowtail or red snapper or tilapia. And then they would perform DNA sequencing on these samples, and they determined that about 35 to 40 percent of fish marketed in the city was mislabeled. So I think...
DEPUYTPeople are buying one thing. People thought they were buying one thing when, in fact, they were getting something else.
BOBEThat's right. So my favorite example was they found that -- they bought expensive sturgeon caviar and discovered that it was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish, this really ugly fish. So there are going to be lots of things like that, that come out that are -- or individuals, once they have access to these technologies, can do all sorts of interesting experiments and explore their hypotheses about the world. And then there are, as I mentioned before, I think, low-cost medical devices and low-cost laboratory equipment. It's really an exciting and interesting area.
BOBESo I was down in Nicaragua a few months ago. Actually, it was about a month ago. And just before I got on the plane to go down there to visit a family member who had a baby, on the mail, global mailing list, somebody posted, hey, I just started a hacker space in Nicaragua. And so I contacted this person, and I said, oh, my gosh, I'm gonna be there. I'd love to come see the space. And it turns out that it was in a small town of about 30,000 people in Ocotal, Nicaragua, near the Honduras border, agricultural town.
BOBEThey make -- you know, they farm coffee and tobacco, mostly. They make bricks. And they had set up a hacker space inside of a medical -- nurses – a nurse school. And what they were doing was trying to -- they had this problem that medical technologies -- they buy 90 percent of their medical technologies from overseas. And they bring them in, and they only work for a very short period of time before they break, and nobody can fix them, or consumables run out.
BOBEAnd so now they have expensive furniture, basically, sitting around, littered around the hospital. And so I got to see a room full of nurses, doctors, lab technicians and electricians starting to tinker with laboratory equipment and think about how they can make their own. And one of my favorite examples was a bike pump nebulizer, where they had taken an existing 10-dollar bike pump. It was -- you pump it with your foot.
BOBEThey put in a surgical tube into that, and a nebulizer, and they could administer, you know, liquid medications...
BOBE...to children without the need of an air compressor. And I think that there are gonna be lots of opportunities of taking all of this inventiveness around electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and getting involved in health medicine and biology in interesting ways.
DEPUYTSo sometimes it's not reinventing the wheel. It's making a cheaper wheel so that you can bring therapies and other things to people at a fraction of the cost that they may be paying right now. We got an...
DEPUYT...an interesting email from Nan. And, Dan, let me have you address this. Nan says, "Is the equipment standardized so that the result -- so that data that you're deriving and coming up with, et cetera, is compatible with data from the equipment used by academics and professionals?"
GRUSHKINSo Genspace, I think, is a unique example because all of our equipment is professional-grade equipment. About a year and a half ago, Ellen, our microbiologist, her lab downsized. And they were gonna throw away all that expensive, very useful equipment. So, instead, they donated it to us, which was a real boon to us. All that equipment is anything -- is pretty standard. You'd see it in any microbiological lab. So the answer is yes. It's there. We have it. Yeah.
DEPUYTA number of people have written in or called in, wanting to know how to get families involved in do-it-yourself biology or simply learning about what's going on. Diane is with us. She's on the line from Tysons Corner. Diane on line one, go right ahead, please.
DIANEHi, I just think everything you're doing is really exciting. And I've heard two locations, Brooklyn and San Francisco, I believe. And I'd like to know how the average consumer who has scientific curiosity gets some ideas. For example, I grow daylilies, and it would be really fun to be able to play around with the height and color and see how successful I am.
DEPUYT(laugh) Absolutely. Especially with spring here.
DIANEYes. Or just refrigerator biology. (laugh)
DEPUYTRefrigerator what? Refrigerator what?
DEPUYTYes, yes, yes. (laugh) I hear you.
GRUSHKINI think you just coined a phrase.
DIANESo I'd love to -- is there some place that is -- is there a local location in the Metropolitan D.C. area and you -- or a foundation to create the site, and how really that access to wherever...
DEPUYTRight, right. Diane, thanks very much.
BOBEWell, I would say that the best place for Diane to go to is -- the first place to start is to go to DIYbio.org/local. And this is a place where individuals -- where you can find regional groups who have set up in different cities around the world. And also there's information there. If there is no group locally, you can set one up and start to find other people in your community who are interested in getting together. And, typically, what we see of how this begins is it's a small group of people -- maybe as few as three to five -- who get together and decide that they both -- that they all have some interest in doing, you know, hobby biology.
BOBEAnd from there, they might start having regular meetings and introducing guest lectures and running seminars. And the activity from there can get more -- you know, more complex. So, you know, with the San Francisco group, their group grew to hundreds of people over the course of the past year and a half. And then finally, they needed their own -- space of their own. And so they went to kickstarter.com and said, we wanna build a community lab in San Francisco. And over the course of about a month, they raised $30,000 online of donations to start a community lab.
DEPUYTJust a couple of seconds left, David. We're here in Washington. Does it seem to you that the centers of gravity for DIY biology are Boston and San Francisco, or the West Coast broadly?
REJESKII think certainly that's the case, but there's no reason for that. I mean, I think from a sort of D.C. perspective, one of the interesting things is we're having this national discussion debate, a lot of anxiety about how do we get kids engaged in science. And here comes along a movement that's totally infectious. You got people sort of wanting to know, how do I join?
REJESKIHow do I learn? And it comes right at that time where we're trying to figure out, you know, how do we position the -- sort of the educational system of the U.S. to create a new sort of cadre of educated people.
DEPUYTThanks to Dave Rejeski for joining us here in the studio. Dan Grushkin joining us from the studios of the Argo Network in New York City. And Jason Bobe joining us from KQED in San Francisco. Thank you all. I'm Bruce DePuyt, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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