The DIY dilemma

The do-it-yourself biology movement has an image problem. Commonly called DIYbio, it inspired photos of T-shirt-clad misfits in their basements adopting limited scientific skills as they try to create cool-but-fringe things like glow-in-the-dark plants. We do.

Policy-makers take an opposite view: Instead of wayward amateurs, they look to perverted experts engineering pathogens of damage in their garages to uncover the world. 19 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, shows that neither caricature is accurate, and that the DIYbio movement is more finicky than those viewed from the outside (go. see

The movement is made up of enthusiasts with many backgrounds and interests in biology, who work in wet-lab spaces affiliated with traditional science centers such as universities.

The survey found that 92% of DIY biologists work at least some of the time in communal spaces, rather than in their garages or basements; that they are mostly young (36% under 35, 78% under 45); that they are more educated than the general population; And many are still learning the basics of biotechnology. Only 6% of those surveyed said that their experiments were such that the work would require safety conditions that could lead to human disease.

It is interesting to note that 28% of respondents to the survey said they already do some or all of their work in academic, corporate or government laboratories, and 19% have obtained a doctoral-level degree. So at least some DIY biologists are readers of this magazine – or indeed themselves – and are within the mainstream scientific community.

It undermines the impression that all DIY biologists are inexperienced if ardent amateurs. And the report argues that this expertise and access to sophisticated laboratory facilities means the DIY community has the potential to generate products that will benefit society. As a result, it recommends that the US government fund a network of community laboratory spaces.

Examples of positive effects DIYbio may already exist: its practitioners have designed an inexpensive alternative to commercial machines for polymerase chain reactions, and they have come up with an inexpensive diagnostic tool for malaria. Still, the projects that have garnered the most attention have been essentially trivial, such as the project to create a glowing plant, which publicly raised US$500,000 last year – from malaria equipment earned in seed funding. ten times more. .

This highlights the major problem. There is no government-funding agency that decides which DIY project is worthwhile, so DIY biologists can do whatever they like, as long as it’s legal. While this is an intrinsic part of the thrill of being in the movement, it is also a factor that keeps legitimate funders away, and some community labs are threatened with closure as a result.

Governments would benefit greatly from supporting the DIYbio movement; This would give them greater access and potentially more control over the ongoing work in the labs they fund.

But the report also noted that most DIY biologists do not support government regulation now or in the future. Governments, of course, could not be more involved in supporting this movement without taking a more active role towards regulation. Is this apparent impasse permanent? Maybe not. The report notes that a large minority – 43% – of DIY biologists favor some sort of regulation in the future, and this could increase as the movement matures.

The authors of the report expect such a change. They suggest benchmarks and timelines for addressing regulation – for example, a time in the future, when companies and people outside sophisticated laboratories will be able to synthesize long stretches of DNA. Still, rather than risk being overshadowed by events, the DIY-biology community and regulators should start talking about how to anticipate such developments, rather than merely responding to them.

The security and stability of government funding will protect the future of the DIYbio movement; The issue is whether the movement will accept the trade-offs that bring such stability. If you are reading then please tell me.