"Not just a DIY Bio guy"
DIY Bio with Andy Gracie
It is hot, it is Helsinki, and it is all a little tense, as Andy Gracie, artist and co-founder of Hackteria, recounts the fine line between hats… hats of Black, hats of White, and hats the types of hats under the watchful Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“The FBI says the public overestimate their abilities and underestimate their ethics”
But we didn’t start the day here, initially beginning with promises of being taught the New Praktical Arts: The making of four incredible things commonly used in commercial labs, that would usually cost you many thousands of dollars. Yet today, for the low low price of just a hand full of Euro dollahs.
“I want to teach you how to make your own apparatus, very quickly and cheaply.”
And so we did, under his eye, fashion the following:
A lamina flow hood, with excellent sneeze guard and [positive air chamber] one would test such a thing with an organic sensor, between 1600 and 2600 euros.
An Appplesqe trans illuminator, dubbed be he “iTrans”, otherwise $1-3000 dollars
A webcam, when by inverted lens, becomes a lab usable 100-200x video microscope… generally $200 up to many many many dollars
A super awesome gel electrophoresis chamber, which if lucky would be found for 250 USD
And, a not previously planned incubation chamber
Amazed yet? Yes, yes you are.
And why, you now ask, DIY? Andy himself is a proponent of this movement, as he believes equipment should be cheap and accessible, for people who want to play with and modify things.
In the book Biopunk the author talks about the differences in the speed of development in the computer industry as compared to that of the the biotech. To summarise, many curious minds like Gates and Jobs began their paths, entrepreneurial and innovative, in the garages of relatives in an exciting new area of personal computation and science for Everyman, and sharing of information, and while the speed of development closely follows Moores Law, the biotech movement, for all its promise, has scarcely moved in decades, as a result of the lock-down and secrecy for, what can only be reasoned, profit, at the expense of the health and lives of the many. He believes that with an open source approach to biology we would begin to see a commons of shared knowledge and from this collective input, advances the likes of which we may not see otherwise.
Cancer, new medicines, extended life and many many chronic illnesses and diseases could by now have been resolved if we had been working for the collective good as opposed to the monopolist profit.
To achieve such things we would need to have an “open source approach to biology, copyleft ideologies, anti-patenting and ip-protection. It is about sharing plans, usage and accessibility.”
He talks about this in ways not so much philanthropic, but that there is much proof that this is the best way to improve things “by all people having access to intellectual interest and property, so all things are fed back into the community for people to have the best access and info that they can get.”
An example: A DIY genetic barcoder was made in the Bay Area - individuals began to use this tool to see if they were being given what they were sold, and frequently found that meals such as high priced Bluefin Tuna, was actually low priced regular style tuna.
Andy believes in education and dissemination, as without commercial incentive there is more room to run experiments and create products that a regular profit seeking lab wouldn’t otherwise do.
It is a convincing argument, about to become more so by the practical component of the day.
So from where came this kick against the mediks? Not so much as the rebellious act some might think.
Cathal Garvey, from Cork Ireland: The lone soldier of DIY Bio. The Environmental Protection Agency has granted him Level 1, the only non government lab. In his mother's basement.
“The roots of the DIY Bio movement can be found connected to the hobbyists of the 70’s, where people were sourcing, swapping and creating parts to make computers in their homes”
These folks were united by the futurist magazine Byte, and similarly around the mid 90’s came a bio version of this kind of group circulating around Make magazine. This Do It Yourself Biology, or DIY Bio, grew from the maker scene in the San Francisco Bay Area , via Jason Bobe and Mackenzie Cowell, who stated “central to our mission is the belief that biotech and greater public understanding about it has the potential to benefit everyone”
And why did they talk about these things?
Andy says “it’s all about practicing biology outside of the formalist institutes. and mostly sharing ideas.”
In this world there are the makers and the doers, and so naturally in 2009 came Genspace, a New York based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting education in molecular biology for both children and adults, working inside and outside of traditional settings, providing a safe, supportive environment for training and mentoring in biotechnology.
Following that open wetware sites came about for sharing info among groups. [OpenWetWare]
And out of this, Biopunk, a subculture within the subculture. DIY Bio hobbyists are more interested in building their own equipment possibly due to a maker influence, whereas the Biopounks are more focused on results. The Makers and the Doers.
Urs Gaudenz built a total functioning lab in a suitcase, complete with a pcr machine, for under $200
Hackteria was set up, also in 2009, to promote building your own gear from junk and components.
“As a community platform Hackteria tries to encourage the collaboration of scientists, hackers and artists to combine their expertise, write critical and theoretical reflections, share simple instructions to work with life-science technologies and cooperate on the organization of workshops, temporary labs, hack-sprints and meetings.”
Though at this point there was still no connection between DIY Bio and what is called Bio Art, a field in which Andy Gracie is prominent.
Buuuut you can’t expect all this to be happening without a little home-grown fear and as with anything new, and unregulated, there is a fear. Simple, silent, and invisible.
As all this collective interest grew, the FBI became interested, and in June 2012 they organised the DIY Bio Outreach Program, inviting all the known DIY Bio groups to have a meet and greet.
And this brings us back to the beginning of this post. The FBI considered these people White Hats, a term used for an ethical computer Hacker, but were carefully looking for a Black Hat [look it up] within who could be dangerous.
The meeting was a strange situation that can be best be summarised within this happy powerpoint presentation - and this site.
Outlaw Biology, was a term being thrown around, and many people were concerned there could be another Steve Kurtz affair, but it seems the main aim was to indoctrinate these guests to “self monitor”.
It seems no Make magazine is working with Darpa, both crowd sourcing their R&D while at the same time… Monitoring it.
We discussed the global ethics of this whole thing, where it is, where it is going and where it has been.
It was an emotional moment when it was revealed to those in the room who did not know, that DIY Biologists were considered as a similar type of criminal as pedophiles.
And, with that, we broke for lunch.
Part two of this number is our guided tour of how to do it yourself.
Why a DIY workshop:
The Sottish/American Industrialist Andrew Carnegie once wrote, “My heart is in the work.” In a Gordian twist of the baron’s words, Andy Gracie led a score of conference participants in four separate DIY endeavours.
Project 1: DNA Transilluminator
Transilluminators are used in molecular biology labs to view DNA (or RNA) that has been separated by electrophoresis through an agarose gel, or to view bacterial strains natively fluorescing or modified with the GFP gene.
In this module of the workshop, participants built transilluminators using generic acrylic storage boxes, leds, scraps of acrylic sheeting, circuitboards and wires. This rig even switched between blue light and UV light transillumination.
Project 2: Laminar flow hood and Incubator
The former is used for maintaining a consistent, sterile airflow, from inside to outside of the box so that tissue culture plates may be prepared. The latter is used to keep plates at a consistent temperature.
Project 3: Microscope
USB webcams were hacked by removing the lens from the CCD chip on the circuitboard, which were then reversed and pasted to the exterior of the camera housing. The camera was then attached to laser cut acrylic parts to build an inverted microscope that allowed for an adjustable stage and was tested using pre-stained plant cells.
Project 4: Electrophoresis chamber
Gel electrophoresis is a method for separation and analysis of DNA using a polarized gelatin. Using inexpensive plastic storage boxes, stainless nuts and bolts, and five nine-volt batteries connected in series, an electrophoresis rig was built.
Check out the full photo gallery of this exciting and productive day.