DIY Bio: To Hack or Not to Hack?

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An anthropomorphic robot for liquid handling. Used under Creative Commons.

As a molecular biology graduate student, I am often asked what I actually do at work. Badly explained, my daily job is to be a glorified liquid handler. I move tiny volumes of liquids from a large glass bottle into various plastic containers. (This is a necessary, if boring, task for various stages of my experiments and lab work. The handy micropipette we use to do this work, in my humble opinion, is the bedrock that molecular biology rests on.) On a good day, I can be doing hundreds of transfers. My personal record has to be close to a thousand. Why do I spend so much of my graduate studies doing this grunt work? And how could I do less of it? The solution to less pipetting is pretty “simple”: liquid handling robots. 

Having a liquid handling robot would make pipetting by hand obsolete. Liquid handling robots are designed to precisely dispense the same volume every time, something that I can only keep up continuously for up to an hour. To err is human. A robot, on the other hand, is less likely to make mistakes due to fatigue, become bored, or get distracted.

So given all these benefits, why does my lab not have such a cool piece of equipment? Cost. These machines (used to) cost tens of thousands of dollars. A graduate student’s time cost less. That is until recently.

Opentrons, a new startup, has released a new robot which can handle these sorts of tasks at one-tenth the cost of traditional robots. As an added bonus, their machines are also smaller than their competitors and come with protocols that can be shared easily between users.

Opentrons basically took a common problem in biology and designed a lower cost solution.

The lower cost of equipment also means that we can potentially do biology and run lab tests in resource-limited environments such as disaster zones. Furthermore, having access to a liquid handling robot will free up time to allow researchers to design and plan more experiments. (Plus, hopefully the amount of time I spend on my bench can be replaced by time spent controlling a robot from home!)

Opentrons arose from the ethos of the nascent DIY bio movement. The DIY bio movement is a social movement which aims to bring biotechnology and its benefits to the general public. In fact, Opentrons started out in Genspace, the world’s first community biology lab based in New York. Think open-access biology for the masses, or a new hobby you can indulge in on the weekends. In places like Genspace, almost anyone can come in and build something with biology.

Now, another common term used to describe DIY bio is biohacking. The word hacking has been used a lot in recent press, and not positively. Usually, in the news, it means someone has illegally accessed something private belonging to someone else without permission.

But hacking is a broad term for a broad range of practices. Hacking is not inherently bad. We have hackathons where hack means essentially exploratory programming to solve problems. We also have life-hacks from lifehacker, where hack means desirable shortcuts in daily life. In fact, using something designed for another purpose – such as using a screwdriver to open that recalcitrant tin of cocoa powder – is also hacking. We definitely all hack many things daily! 

Much as the Jedis fear the rise of the Sith, there is certainly some wariness that these new hacking technologies could be misused. But there is a very strong code of conduct amongst the bio-hackvists and DIY bio movement, and there is oversight from various organizations, like DIYbio.org. We do not think that all the hackers who attend Def Con will destroy computer networks, and it’s just as unlikely biohackers will design the next bubonic plague any time soon.

Besides, wouldn’t it be nice if we can hack biology research and development to make it easier? Faster? More accessible? With solutions like Opentrons and other community-based solutions, more people can do biology.

If reading all of this has inspired you to try your hands tinkering with biology, be sure to look out for the new community biolab happening in Chicago, ChiTownBio! And if you’d rather design and build lab instruments, you should contact my lab mate, Mike Vincent. He aims to design and create cheap lab equipment to help bring biology to local communities, including Chitown high schoolers.

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