Scientists, Entrepreneurs Plant Seed for DIY Biology

September 17, 2008 08:59 AM
by Rachel Balik
MIT researchers and Cambridge, Mass.-based entrepreneurs want to empower “citizen scientists” to establish home labs, opening the door to both discovery and potential dangers.

The Future of Science Is … at Home?

Given the chaos that hackers can cause with computers, it seems odd that the members of DIYbio compare themselves to hackers when describing their hopes for the future of homespun biology. The organization teaches amateurs how to perform scientific procedures, such as genetic fingerprinting, using common household items. Member Mackenzie Cowell hopes that these efforts will be as influential as Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club. Members of the Homebrew Computer Club eventually went on to make major innovations in the field and start huge companies; Cowell believes that amateur contributions to biology will make big discoveries happen faster.

Synthetic biology is a field that holds great potential for the movement; some scientists believe that some day, people may be able to easily create creatures at home from premade synthetic biological parts. 

Thus far, there are minimal regulations addressing the safety of at-home unprofessional labs, triggering fears that truly dangerous outcomes will arise.

Related Topics: Commercial DNA testing; other home science projects

Several companies are making DNA tests commercially available, offering DIY kits that enable purchasers to spit into a tube and learn about their genetic makeup. Some companies use the results for a specific purpose; HairDx will tell you whether or not you’re genetically inclined to become bald. Others such as 23andMe, will give you your DNA results and help you use them for social networking.

According to California law, only doctors can request genetic tests. The state health department sent letters to DNA testing companies, warning them that they were in violation. New York has similarly alerted companies that they must be properly licensed to issue genetic testing kits. The overall sentiment is that a trained medical professional should be on hand to advise amateurs about their DNA test results.

Other at-home scientists constrain their experimentation to their cars, planning to combat the gas crisis by making their own fuel. The MicroFueler will help consumers make ethanol, and there are at-home biodiesel production kits as well.

Reference: Synthetic biology; DIYbio


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