Citizen scientists experiment sans lab



by Sandra De La Torre


To many, the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” can be difficult to answer. As children, some dreamed of careers as astronauts, teachers, rock stars or scientists. But growing up, these aspirations are often exchanged for more feasible applications.

Now, those with lab-coat-and-beaker dreams may be in luck. DIYbio, or Do-It-Yourself Biology, is a movement that allows for the exchange of ideas and projects among professional and amateur scientists as well as ordinary citizens who are interested in the field of biology.

The organization’s website was launched in 2008, but the movement emerged in 2004 from an undergraduate synthetic biology competition known as The International Genetically Engineered Machine at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In an interview with NPR, DIYbio co-founder Jason Bobe explained in the past the tools necessary for biological research and projects were only available to government labs or scientists working in professional institutions. However, a decrease in tool costs now allows citizen-scientists to participate in the field.

“Individuals can start asking questions about things that may not be of interest to an academic scientist,” Bobe said. “And I think that we can have a renaissance in discovery.”

DIYbio’s website offers a platform for discussion and helps individuals find groups and events at a local, national and global level.

DIYbio began as a Google group and became a foundation for other groups driven by the movement. One of those groups was Genspace, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology.”

Genspace provides a space for innovation, puts events together and offers educational outreach for the community.

According to President and Scientific Program Director- Ellen Jorgensen, Genspace was the first community biotech lab, founding the concept many other groups follow today.

Genspace offers membership for $100 a month. This includes safety training.

“(You) can do whatever you want. It doesn’t have to make money or be medically useful as long as it’s safe,” Jorgensen said.

With groups such as Genspace, members have no need to justify their research, which would typically be required in government labs or major institutions.

“It encourages people to tinker … it’s a very important thing to preserve,” Jorgensen said.

BioCurious is another group working to preserve the art of tinkering. Located within a 2,500-square-foot community in Sunnyvale, it opened its doors last November and, so far, has about 30 members. The appeal of BioCurious is that it offers space for individuals to meet and work on projects related to biology.

The people who join these organizations are as diverse as the projects they are involved in. For example, one Genspace member is working to genetically engineer plants, while others are occupied with software related to synthetic biology. One member has even collected different ocean samples to create blown-glass sculptures.

No matter what their interest, citizen scientists can explore any part of the biological field they wish. All they need is a petri dish and the proper outlet for childhood dreams to come to life.