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Do-It-Yourself Biologists Doing No Harm, Survey Finds

19 November 2013 5:00 am
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Do-it-yourself DNA. Survey finds many DIYbio hobbyists are conducting simple studies, such as extracting DNA from a cheek swab.

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Do-it-yourself DNA. Survey finds many DIYbio hobbyists are conducting simple studies, such as extracting DNA from a cheek swab.

There's little to fear from the existing Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYbio) movement, concludes a report released today by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. "There's been a lot of debate in the biosecurity community about what DIYers may or may not be doing, from making narcotics to pandemics to viruses that kill heads of state (I'm not joking)," writes Wilson fellow and report co-author Daniel Grushkin in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. He hopes the report will "dispel a lot of these myths, so that the discussion can move beyond suspicion and risks, and start focusing on opportunities."

As sophisticated biological research techniques and equipment have become cheaper and more accessible to hobbyists, some observers have worried that tinkerers could end up working on projects, such as engineered bacteria or viruses, that could threaten public safety or the environment. Media reports have even suggested that Frankenstein-like researchers are toiling away secretly in basement laboratories. A few outsiders have even called for greater government regulation of the DIY community, in order to avoid surprises.

Such worries may be premature, today’s report concludes. Rather than causing problems, molecular biology hobbyists around the world are instead improving public engagement with science, creating useful products, and even contributing to scientific research.

The meat of the report is an online survey of the estimated 3000- to 4000-strong DIYbio community; the authors say it is the first of its kind.

Less than 10% of the 359 respondents reported doing their tinkering solely at home, while more than 80% have bench space in community DIYbio labs or general "hackerspaces" where they collaborate in teams. Most reported conducting experiments that are harmless and basic, like extracting DNA from a cheek swab.

But there are sophisticated exceptions. Borrowing skills and equipment from the burgeoning DIY fabrication movement, such as 3D printers and laser cutters, some DIYbio enthusiasts have engineered cut-rate versions of key lab equipment. For example, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, an essential device in biotechnology labs for mass-copying DNA, usually goes for $2000, but a DIY version called OpenPCR is now available for $600.

According to the authors, media reports create the impression that the DIYbio community has an adamantly libertarian stance on government regulation of their hobby: "The underlying assumption has been that they uniformly stand against it." But the survey results suggest that many DIYers are already considering possible regulatory frameworks. Just one-quarter believe that regulation is required now, but about one-half say it is inevitable in the future.

"For the most part molecular biology is self regulated," writes Jacob Shiach, a DIYbio advocate based in Houston, Texas, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. "If you receive [National Science Foundation] or [National Institutes of Health] funding, they do have rules and requirements that your lab must follow as a condition of the funding, but for biotech companies and some universities where the funding is entirely private there are no hoops or documents needed to be signed for biological work (and there shouldn't be); the guidelines are sufficient." Shiach says that the DIYbio community has suffered "negative experiences" in recent years due to media and think tank pieces that malign the movement.

Others, however, argue that some regulation is needed sooner rather than later. Dustin Holloway, a bioinformaticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston and the author of a recent article calling for DIYbio regulation, says he doesn’t disagree with the survey’s findings. “But biotechnology is changing far too quickly for us to make any firm and lasting conclusions,” he writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “Today, a DNA sequencer still costs over $50k.  But in five years when the cost is under $500 and an amateur scientist catches swine flu and decides to publish the viral sequence on his blog, the media outcry may be significant enough to stifle even the safe activities of the community.  So, I think the earlier the government gets involved to provide incentives for safety training and create (perhaps non-mandatory) certifications or licensing, the better off the community will be in the long run.  As with anything, too much regulation is suffocating, but the right amount can encourage safe growth."