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Overview of DIYbio

Are you still trying to build your own computers by assembling the CPU, memory, main board and so on which bought from markets? Maybe you are dated. At present, some amateur biologists are attempting to develop a new concept of DIY: they are setting about experiments on DNA under homemade lab circumstances, expecting to create their own plasmids and even novel life forms through genetic engineering.

It should be said that in the first place, it’s the improvement of biology itself gave birth to the appearance of so-called DIYbio. Nowadays, numerous biotech firms render service of sequencing and provide great quantities of protein tools such as restriction enzymes, primers, competent cells, varies of gene manipulation kits and so on, which making molecular experiments at home possible. In addition, powerful modern information technology also has prompted the progress of DIYbio. Ever-increasing scientific knowledge and information online (sometimes even free) made DIYbio even more convenient currently.

Fig1. Meredith Patterson at work in her home lab. Source:

Complaining that the field of biological research is chronically dominated by professional labs in universities and scientific research institutions, some DIYers are eager to break with the tradition, “democratize” science and, as they say, to make life science more interesting and even more “sexy”. They declared themselves to be biohackers proudly, innovators to explore biological realms energetically as a hobby by applying biotechnics themselves. Meredith L. Patterson, a computer programmer, is one of the pioneers of biohackers. She is trying to modify the yogurt bacteria genetically to fluoresce to signal the presence of melamine.

Although the blueprint of DIYbio seems to be splendid, a number of difficulties are still waiting to be solved. For instance, though basic instruments, like refrigerator and microwave oven, are available at home, some apparatuses still face with difficulties in finding their way into families in a short time, like centrifuge and PCR instrument. To solve this puzzle, community lab seems to be a simple solution. At present, an organization called “DIYbio” in Cambridge, Massachusetts is just bringing the imaginings into practice. They are establishing a community lab to allow the general public making use of essential chemicals and apparatuses to conduct their own experiments.

Another knotty problem is the resource for gene cloning. Along with the development of genome-based technologies, the whole genome sequences of more and more organisms are realized. Thus, directly cloning genes from the genome is feasible. However, in my opinion, the concept of biobricks proposed by iGEM competitions is more feasible to those amateurs: sufficient and precise information about the design, sequence, function and so on of standardized parts would free the biohackers from the suffering of searching appropriate functional genes from genome-wide scale and designing the proper primers to clone them. In addition, the standardized method of cutting and splicing the inserts and vectors also make process of molecular cloning more convenient. Imaging that one day kits of biological parts can be purchased from special markets, the DIYbio will become a novel popular forms of entertainment for those DIY fans.

Even though the biohackers constantly asserted that they should not be confused with bioterrorist, the DIYbio still raised disputes about biosafety immediately after its birth. People worry that things might get out of control and dangerous new life forms might be unleashed, causing unintended consequences. After all, the assumption that one day in the future viruses similar to the T-viruses in the Resident evil series will be developed in a garage seems not to be absolutely ridiculous. Prompt actions seem to be imperative. Above all, the construction of a rational and judicial legal framework is extremely urgent. Relevant laws should define the bioterrorism clearly and properly and stipulate the duty of government to prohibit misuse of the DIYbio and protect the people from attacks of terrorism.

To be more specific, government, as the server of the society, ought to take the responsibility to monitor the security of experiments conducted by biohackers. Firstly, research projects of DIYers should be declared to government at first, thus valid evaluation and useful guidance could be supplied by the expert panel. Secondly, business deals involving biological resources, especially genetic resources, should be controlled strictly by the government. Thirdly, the process of the experiment also should be declared to relevant departments regularly. An effectual communication channel between government and biohackers is crucial.

The homemade laboratory safety deserves special attention, too. There are an awful lots of noxious chemical substances utilized in biological experiments, like EB and so on. Using safer substitutes to replace is a sort of solutions and nowadays many firms are also striving to design and manufacture these safe products, such as safer dyes to substitute EB. However, if these toxic agents are indispensable and irreplaceable, proper treatment and disposal of these hazardous agents and other bioactive poison is a vital procedure for conducting experiments at home. In this respect, some international biosafety standard is instrumental. To give an example, prior to disposal, all laboratory materials must be sterilized by autoclaving. All autoclave bags (including clear) MUST be marker with international biohazard symbol. After it, any bag must be over bagged again with an opaque trash bag, sealed and finally disposed. For various biotoxins, there are also multifarious corresponding decontamination procedures, it’s better to realize them before you commence the experiment. What’s more, children should be kept away from your homemade lab. Any slight negligence may cause serious results, so safety measures should always be fully considered before experiments. This arouses further concern about an efficient and effective management system. Though it is difficult to create a completely sterile environment at home, the idea of asepsis is still vital. As I see it, a special room should be emptied out to establish a lab, all dangerous laboratory things should be hidden in shelves carefully and necessary disinfection measures should also be taken every time you get in and out the lab. More details call for more people to concern.

To sum up, DIYbio is an unprecedented opportunity to spread science as well as an immense challenge to biosafety. How to make full use of its advantages and prevent the potential hazard, more considerations and practice are needed.