Team:University College London/HumanPractice/DIYbio/DIYbio




Overview | Concept | DIYbio | Workshops | Exhibition | Evaluation | Conclusion

What is DIYbio?

DIYbio or "Biohacking" essentially describes citizen science in biology, usually molecular biology. Biohacking often happens as an activity in an established Hackerspace, at home, or in dedicated DIYbio spaces such as Biocurious or Genspace. and the Google DIYbio Group are the online focal points of the international scene. For a more in-depth look at DIYbio, we recommend the NTU-Singapore 2009 iGEM team's DIYbio exposé.

Access Survey

As our collaboration with the London Biohackers gained momentum, we decided to learn more about the global DIYbio community to give our partnership more context. We started an ongoing survey of the community specifically to understand if, and how, these communities desired access to the tools of Synthetic Biology and the Registry of Parts. This investigation will develop into a project beyond iGEM, but here we present some of our initial findings (based on initial responses from LA Biohackers, openbioprojects, Biotinkering Berlin, BiologiGaragen, Labitat Copenhagen, Austin Biohackers and several personal home labs):

Average Age of Biohackers: 29
Desire to work with Registry of Parts: 75%
Time spent (per week) on Biohacking: Average of 8h, but also individuals spending 80h up to all of their time.

Common activities:

  • Genetic engineering
  • Lab equipment design and construction
  • Working with plants
  • Simplifying lab protocols to improve access for community
  • Analytical work / DNA Barcoding
  • Bioinformatics

Desired activities (not feasible presently)

  • DNA Synthesis
  • Working with BioBricks
  • Synthetic Biology and Genetic Modification
  • Working on diseases
  • Analytical projects involving humans


  • No genetic modification possible due to tight European regulations
  • Lack of money
  • Respect for law and DIYbio ethics code

DIYbio in Europe

Our team also had the chance to meet with the DIYbio groups in Paris (La Paillasse) and Manchester (MadLab), which helped us get a more in-depth look at the issues that DIYbio faces, especially in Europe where the regulations on genetic modification are tougher.

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Gallery: Visiting La Paillasse in Paris

Size of community

MadLab does not have a normal fee membership model, which makes it difficult to assess the size of the core group. However there are ca. 20 people per event. La Paillasse is similarly sized with a core group of ca. 20 people, with up to 40 people at events. They also run a mailing list to which 150 people are signed up.

Approach to GM

Both La Paillasse and MadLab currently don’t engage in genetic modification and don’t have a licensed lab. However MadLab is currently moving into a new space with the desire to apply for a GM license by November.

How to initiate new members and pass on safety awareness and skills?

MadLab’s founder Asa Calow remarked the no-frills attitude of BioCurious during the FBI meet-up. MadLab thinks the content for initiation can be separated into three roles:

  • Safety
  • “This is how we do it”
  • Education / Knowledge of subject / specific skills

It is clear to MadLab that there must be a balance between text book learning and hands-on learning, but it is difficult to find this “happy balance”. Biology makes this balance more challenging, as the “trial and error cycle” takes a considerably longer time.

La Paillasse has a much more personal learning-by-doing approach than MadLab, which currently mainly hosts workshops. A general rule is: “Don’t touch what you don’t understand” and “Ask questions”, which new members do in abundance. So far, the founder Thomas Landrain remarked there have been no problems regulating member activity. Every project in La Paillasse must be transparent to other members and written up on a wiki, which also ensures that no genetic modification takes place. Learning at La Paillasse mainly happens through talking, sharing and collaborating.

Funding and Collaboration

MadLab has just completed a one-year collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University funded by the Wellcome Trust.

La Paillasse has a nominal membership fee of €20 per year, but they have received an impressive amount of equipment by in-kind donation. Some of this equipment comes from companies, but a lot was found in an abandoned laboratory owned by the City of Paris, who gave the community permission to take the equipment. La Paillasse’s founder Thomas Landrain estimates the value of the equipment at about €200,000.

Collaborations and Public Outreach

MadLab’s collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University led to a number of structured public outreach workshops, jointly planned in advance. Even now, after the collaboration has finished, ties to the university remain. When MadLab hosts a new workshop, they always receive academic feedback on their plan to ensure there are no safety issues they overlooked.

La Paillasse would like to engage in more public outreach, but these activites would first require a larger space.

Biohacking contributions to science?

MadLab has proved to be a fantastic place for public outreach, which underlines the point that citizen science is often seen today as a means of in-depth public engagement. While this is true, Biohacking might also have additional benefits for science and academia.

  • Biohacking spaces are usually based within wider Hackerspaces, where a diverse set of people from Electronics, Engineering, Computering, Design, Art, etc. meet. This can lead to facilitated cross-fertilization between subjects. Biohacking is much less compartmentalized than traditional science.
  • Location: Citizen science communities are often closer to the communities and their needs and can react more appropriately. For example, artists and Biohackers in Indonesia developed safe alcohol fermentation protocols after a surge in methanol poisoning deaths following an alcohol tax increase. Another example, La Paillasse uses French rather than English to be more relevant for locals.
  • A chance for academics to regain a sense of wonder and joy at science: a Biohacking space provides the ability to do science “just for the fun and excitement of it”, without looming deadlines and grants. It has even been suggested that some academics might have ideas they don’t want to work on within the university, as they might lose a large part of ownership of their project. This way, Biohacking labs might unearth some innovative ideas.
  • Development of low cost equipment and protocols.
  • We also had the chance to witness the first day of a new program at the CRI (Center for Interdisciplinary Research) in Paris, during which new undergraduate students are taught DIY and Hacking methods. The aim of their first week was to build three biomedical devices from scratch in teams of two. The instructor Tamara Milosevic described multiple advantages for the students, such as transferrable generic skills and a deeper knowledge of the working principles. The CRI instructors also give students better marks for collaborations.