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The Interviews

In addition to conducting a large-scale survey to determine the public's attitude towards DIYbio, we also wanted to get an insider's point-of-view. We contacted an active member in the DIYbio community, Tito Jankowski and he graciously agreed to answer a set of interview questions we had specially prepared.

We had also prepared a survey especially for active DIYbiologists, but as of mid-October, we feel that the number of responses is still too little to make significant conclusions. So we will not be analyzing the results of that survey at this time.

However, we noted that Jason Bobe, one of the founders of DIYbio, had responded to our survey. We have selected a few of his responses to highlight here, as an unofficial interview, with his permission. Thank you Jason!

Interview with Tito Jankowski

Q. How did you get involved in DIYbio?

Tito Jankowski : I was the team leader of the Brown University iGEM Team in 2007. I loved the idea of "applying" synthetic biology, such as lead detecting bacteria, or trees that grow into a house. However, since I couldn't find a job in the field, I instead started taking a closer look at DIYbio. My first real work in DIYbio was starting on the Open Gel Box project.

Jason Bobe : I founded DIYbio.

Q. Which aspect of DIYbio appeals to you?

Jason : It's fun, interesting & cutting-edge.

Q. What made you think that people /the public were ready for taking biology on in the comfort of their own homes?

Tito : Recent leaps in our knowledge justify the risks. Projects such as the human genome project and iGEM make biology accessible to everyone, not just scientists in labs.

Q. Who do you think should engage in DIYBio?

(Of course we understand the idea is to make biology accessible for anyone, but what do you think is the minimum level of expertise/knowledge these people should possess?)

Tito : I think iGEM Teams are the best -- they understand that biology should be engineered. Those interested in synthetic biology are usually pretty open to the idea of DIYbio.

Jason : Junior High/Secondary or equivalent level of knowledge is sufficient to engage in DIYbio.

Q. Which of the following are the most important factors when deciding to carry out an experiment?

Jason :

  • Venue / budget / availability of reagents & equipment
  • Safety / level of training / familiarity with techniques
  • Complexity / duration (of experiment)
  • Manpower / interest level

Q. What do you feel is the minimum level of safety measures that DIYBioers should practice?

(e.g. We found DIYbioNYC telling readers that E.Coli K-12 is so harmless that you can even drink it without ill effects. While this definitely makes DIYbio sound relatively safe, will inexperienced readers get the wrong idea and disregard other safety issues as well?)

Tito : It definitely depends on the type of work you're doing. However, common sense guidelines such as DIY Safety Manual at DIYbio OpenWetWare are useful.

Q. If people could really equip a room to have lab conditions [eg negative pressure, biohoods etc], then would it still be considered DIYBio?

The question here is whether DIYBio refers to the time/money commitment or the expertise of the experimenters?

Tito : DIYbio depends wholly on "doing". It doesn't matter how much equipment or expertise or ideas you have. The focus is on "doing".

Q. What is your typical protocol procedure?

Jason : A combination of both common established protocol & guidelines AND experimental approaches that may be better in some way.

Q. Have you ever considered the impact of your experimentation on society?

Jason : Yes.

Q. What do you feel is the potential for misuse? Is there sufficient cause to worry?

Tito : There are certainly risks involved in amateur biology, including waste disposal and sample management. I advocate for community labs because of this.

Q. If there is cause to worry, what overriding factors made you believe a website like DIYBio could do more good than harm?

Tito : DIYbio is successful because it is a community of people, from a wide range of backgrounds. A website, a mailing list, and other tools make this possible, by bringing groups together. Then those groups are better at making decisions than individuals.

Q. If DIY Bio becomes more mainstream, is it not harder to control/contain lab experiments gone wrong? How can we alleviate this situation?

Tito : Community labs -- encouraging DIYbiologists to work in public spaces where they are supported by funding/education/proper facilities.

Q. Do you think the DIYBio community or anyone who wishes to carry out biological experiments outside of the usual venues, should be regulated, or guided/supervised in any way?

Tito : I think the same rules should apply that apply to academic labs.

Q. The DIYBio community is growing, definitely. Should it remain a obscure and cult hobby for real enthusiasts, or more mainstream [which will likely increase the possibility of bio-errors]?

Tito : It should definitely be a community that engages many different groups, focused on increasing public knowledge.

Q. Do you think DIY bio can contribute significantly to biotechnological advancements or will it remain a hobbyist pursuit?

Jason : [I think it will] contribute significantly to biotechnological advancement in the long-term. Although I do think the hobbyist pursuit has value, particularly from an educational point of view.

Special Thanks

We would like to thank Tito for patiently answering all our questions! It was eye-opening, to see a DIYbiologist's views and motivations. We feel empathetic now, towards pursuing or supporting DIYbio with the same responsible and collected mindset as Tito.

Thanks Tito! We really appreciate your input.

Special thanks also, to Jason Bobe, for taking time out to do our survey. To hear from the founder himself is definitely a serious boost to the credibility of DIYbio in this discussion.

NTU@iGEMcc 2009. Some rights reserved.