Pizza, Beer and Electrophoresis

E. coli - by Michael Nagle for The New York Times

E. coli - by Michael Nagle for The New York Times

On an unassuming avenue in Brooklyn, a large brownstone is occupied by a strange constellation of artists, innovators, and remarkably, amateur biologists. The building's owner is an enigmatic old man whose dream was to lease studios to a diverse range of creatives, giving them a space to collaborate side by side. 

One of the current tenants is a group called Genspace, a non-profit collective of moonlighting biologists. Over several weeks, they constructed a laboratory out of old restaurant benches, recycled glassware and instruments plucked off eBay. They conduct research and run Biology 101 courses alongside pizza nights, all while providing their lab services to the general public. Much like a gym, if you have a hankering for electrophoresis, you can just sign up for a membership.

Genspace aims to democratise the sciences as a part of a wider movement of biohacking, or DIY-biology. To these renegade scientists, waking up and deciding to do some DNA sequencing shouldn't be so much more difficult than trying out watercolour painting. The main roadblock isn't the degree of difficulty of the work itself, just the lack of spaces open to the public to use for research, for fun or to explore.

Last week we had the pleasure of hearing the director of Genspace, Dr Ellen Jorgensen, talking at the University of Technology. DIY biology is becoming increasingly popular across the States as it becomes easier to access cheap instruments and meet like-minded people online. Grass-rooted, self-funded projects are turning into successful start ups, while other initiatives are simply aiming to remember the joy in doing science for curiosity's sake alone. 

Slowly, these groups are pushing for a revolution. Biology, and science in general, has suffered as much as it has benefitted from being so specialised, so exclusive and esoteric. The popularity of these backyard laboratories is not a result of members wanting to pursue projects that universities won't allow, it is merely that lab space is at a premium and reserved exclusively for enrolled students or staff. 

'Garage biology' certainly brings a vivid stereotype to mind, however that is exactly what Jorgensen hopes Genspace will help to erase. Unlike a highschool laboratory or a government funded research company, Genspace is home to an eclectic conglomeration of innovators, designers, teachers and students. Many members are artists from New York and further afield, pursuing cross-disciplinary bioart projects, while others are there because they never had a chance to go to university. Some are testing ideas to support new start-up businesses, and some are just curious.

Genspace holds introductory classes every week, and a big focus of their operation is accessibility and education. Now that we are living in the 21st century, 'DNA literacy' as Dr. Jorgensen calls it, should be far more mainstream. While 82% of Americans think genetically modified foods should be labelled, 80% of Americans think that food containing DNA should be labelled too. We fear DNA and the potential of new gene altering technologies because we don't understand how they work, and we have nowhere to learn. No longer do we fear electricity - we are literate in it; we don't worry about it leaking out of sockets or poisoning our food as we did a century ago. Despite our initial apprehensions, we now understand and embrace electricity, and in the face of GMO scare-tactics and conspiratorial propaganda, Jorgensen has the same hopes for DNA. 

Ultimately, breaking down the ideas of what science is and who can do it is the goal of Genspace. By luring people in with pizza, beer, and a conspicuous lack of white coats, Jorgensen and her team are normalising science, bringing it back to earth, back within the reach of us mere mortals. Genspace and DIY biologists serve to remind us that you don't have to be a scientist to do basic biology, and that you shouldn't need to get a degree to muck around in a lab and explore the microcosmos.

For science to progress smoothly and successfully, it needs to be radically inclusive, something which anyone should be able to contribute to, and something that everyone has the right to learn. However, this kind of true democracy can't start in government funding agencies, in the pockets of big pharma, in private universities or in tech companies. Democracy, like good science itself, starts in the public, with curiosity and imagination.


- LL

Liberty Lawson