The Biohackers Will See You Now
The next generation of DIYBio tools are coming, and this time they mean business.
The DIYBio (or Do-It-Yourself Biology or Biohacking) Revolution is upon us. The Maker Movement — the combination of new digital fabrication tools, low-cost sensors, and an open-source ethos — opened the doors for the creation of scientific tools at fractions of the cost of their commercial counterparts. The next generation of these machines are about to hit the market (well, Kickstarter) and their makers are expecting a much bigger wave of interest and involvement.
The idea of a suburban garage turned into an amateur biology lab was once the realm of science fiction. That moment has come and, to some extent, already passed. In its place, we’ve seen a quick rise in the community lab spaces, like BioCurious in Sunnyvale and Genspace in Brooklyn, as well as the continued development of lower-cost tools for this type of makerspace. Just this year, the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) Jamboree began accepting DIYBio entrants. There’s even a new synthetic biology accelerator opening up down the street from my office in Berkeley called Indie Bio. If you’re looking for them, the signs of the DIYBio Revolution are everywhere.
For some reason, even as many of the wisest oracles of the technology world (Bill Gates, Stewart Brand, Chris Anderson, etc.) concede the next wave of major innovation will come from this direction, the players and milestones move largely under the radar. I have a theory about why this trend has been so underrated, and it stems from the fact that it’s being overshadowed by three more powerful narratives:
- “GMOs are dangerous.”
Biotechnology and synthetic biology have been vilified by activists. Although largely a criticism of genetically modified foods and the business practices of Monsanto, DIYBio tools and labs have not escaped this wrath. Regardless of the actual underlying science, this debate still grabs the majority of the media headlines on biotechnology.
- “Woohoo! Biohacking is cool! Next stop on the Singularity express.”
A reading from the gospel according to Ray Kurzweil. In reality, the future unfolds in fits and starts, milestones and moments. The “Singularity is Near” narrative is an intellectually incomplete way to think about (and make) the future. The real DIYBio story has been stuck behind the polarizing headlines that go along with the trans-humanist rhetoric.
- “DIYBio is trailing edge technology — it doesn’t matter.”
This usually comes from the scientific establishment. It’s largely true, but it also ignores history. DIYBio is a textbook case of a disruptive innovation from Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, where a newcomer creates a technology that is only good enough for a small segment of the market. The incumbents don’t act or care because the markets are small and the margins thin. Over time, the performance and capabilities of the newcomer product begin to improve, displacing incumbents as they go. The model is so common and understood that it’s taught in business schools around the world. It’s the closest we have come to entrepreneurial fact.
In this case, the DIYBio tools have been serving the smallest of markets: community biolab spaces, grad students who can’t afford more expensive equipment, and labs in the developing world. With the availability of used professional equipment consistently showing up on eBay, these tools and their makers have barely made a subsistence living (see: small markets and thin margins). If it wasn’t for the sheer amateur enthusiasm and “because we can” attitude, many of these efforts would have folded long ago. But in true Christensen form, here come the next generation of machines (see: improving performance).
The work of Josh Perfetto is a perfect example. Perfetto and Tito Jankowski grabbed headlines in 2011 when they successfully crowdfunded their open-source polymerase chain reaction (PCR) device, OpenPCR. A PCR machine, or thermal cycler, amplifies segments of DNA by raising and lowering temperatures along a pre-programmed set. It’s not the only biology tool you would need for a lab, but it’s an important one.
At the time, hardly anyone outside the science community knew what a PCR machine was, but the project received a modest amount of attention because it was one of the first open-source hardware projects on Kickstarter and served as a far-out example of just how versatile the Arduino microcontroller was becoming. It made news, but it also carved a path for others to follow: DIY scientific tools could be made for much less than their commercial counterparts. Open source hardware and software, along with a community of co-developers could make just about anything more accessible. It showed that a DIYBio future could be prototyped on Kickstarter (which is currently playing out in a handful of campaigns: OpenTrons, miniPCR, and Bento Lab).
However, the story doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve figured out how to make something cheap, you’re bound to want something that works better. Incremental increases in performance are inevitable, but an order of magnitude leap forward is also possible. And that’s what Perfetto has now done with his new Open qPCR machine. Here’s his explaination of the upgrade:
The original OpenPCR we released 3 years ago is known as an endpoint PCR thermocycler. The machine takes DNA as an input, and gives (possibly much more) DNA as an output. So for example if you want to know if ground beef is contaminated with E. Coli, you put a beef sample into the PCR, target an E. Coli gene, and if that gene is present, you’ll get tons of E. Coli DNA out. However because the output is still DNA, you need to use some other downstream laboratory process to detect this DNA and convert it to information you’re after: whether the beef is contaminated. This downstream processing adds cost, reliability issues, and requires more skilled personnel, so it’s not a practical solution for diagnostics.
In contrast, Open qPCR is what is known as a Real-Time PCR thermocycler. It takes DNA in, does the same selective DNA amplification, but using an optical detection system is able to directly detect whether the targeted DNA is present, and generate data as an output which is displayed on a web interface or exported via a standardized data format/API. And information out makes all the difference — I think the entire history of the Web has shown what happens when you expose information via a standardized interface.
The other main difference of course is that OpenPCR was a DIY build-it-yourself kit, while Open qPCR is a manufactured, ready-to-use machine, meaning this is now a real solution for your average biologist who wants results, rather than a hobbyist who wants to solder things together.
From my perspective, DIYBio has arrived at the next phase of Christensen’s outline. Josh told me the following:
Even before we’ve formally announced our machine, I am being pinged left and right (at least 7x in the past 2 weeks) about Ebola. People want to do everything from diagnosing patients in clinics to community monitoring of the animal population, which is where Ebola outbreaks begin from. What’s interesting to me is that people who want to deploy dozens of machines throughout western Africa are coming to us rather than the established players. Open qPCR certainly doesn’t have the features of the higher-priced machines, but it performs good enough at a price point that works in their situation.
In other words, these machines will have real world consequences (there’s even a Kickstarter pledge level to support an Open qPCR machine going to health workers in western Africa). This is the next phase of the DIYBio Revolution. With increasing access comes the possibility to imagine entirely new use cases. Coincidentally, this is precisely where DIYBIO struggles to shake the stigma of the bigger narratives. Most people don’t consider the opportunities presented due to one of the three reasons mentioned above. More than anything else, the movement suffers from a failure of imagination. In his Kickstarter campaign, Josh lists a whole host of ways the tool could be used. It’s hardly exhaustive, but it gives an idea of how vast this world might be. It’s not built to solve a specific problem, it’s a tool for asking more questions.
The biggest question now: who will imagine the uses and what will they dream up?