DIYbio is a national organization founded in 2008 to use the tools of synthetic biology to expand experimentation and bioengineering into the realm of hobbyists. Daniel Grushkin of the NYC chapter elaborates on their belief that academic labs have limited ability to explore the potentials of scientific discoveries.
Daniel Grushkin interviewed by Elizabeth Krasner
Elizabeth Krasner Calling yourselves DIY seems like an extension of the 1960s and Whole Earth ‘access to tools’ mantra. You work without the standard equipment found in a biology lab and in fact, much (if not all) of your work is done at home, in kitchens and living rooms. How do you adapt biological experiments to work outside the lab?
Daniel Grushkin We see ourselves rooted in two movements. The first is Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club. The group, which eventually gave rise to personal computing, was highly influenced by the 60s’ mantras. But we also see ourselves indebted to the growth of hacker spaces. DIYbio found its start in our kitchens and living rooms. But as we’ve organized, we’ve begun to build labs that, unlike conventional spaces, are open to collaboration.
We’re not averse to working with institutions; in fact, many of our members work in universities by day. But corporate institutions are beholden to profits and university labs are beholden to grants. DIYers are beholden to neither, and that allows us to work on projects that are a little more speculative.
EK What do you see as the role of biology? What’s the future of biotech?
DG Biotech is already involved in every part of our lives – all the way up from the food we eat. At this point, lines can’t be drawn. We are biology.
EK You straddle the line between an anti-institutional organization, necessarily amateur and independent, and working at the forefront of one of the most important new technologies – biotech. Do you see yourselves as ‘biohackers’, a term used by one of your members?
DG I think it’s a silly term. Any genetic engineer is and is not a biohacker. When a computer hacker hacks into program, he swerves the system from its original designer’s intent. But who’s the original designer of life? And what’s his intent? I think of biotech as a new design palette. We’ll only understand our work’s ‘philosophical’ meaning as we proceed.
EK You speak about your practice as feeling transgressive. What is your relationship with the law, or the FBI?
DG The laws around working with biology are gray. In order to avert a wrongful investigation – see Steve Kurtz – the NYC DIYbio community has met with our local Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator – that’s really his title – and engaged in dialogue. We have less clout than universities and more to lose.
Our group is committed to safety. We have strict rules: we will never work with anything that is pathogenic and we will never work with anything that steps beyond the Centers for Disease Control specifications for biosafety level one. We are constantly in discussion, but our basic code is: do no harm, abide by all regulations (of which there are few), and conduct work in a safe manner. We battle against the perception that our work is dangerous. One of the most ridiculous claims was that a group like ours might coax E. coli into making cocaine. Given that the world’s premiere lab has been spending millions to coax bacteria into producing artemisinin (an anti-malarial) for nearly a decade, the claim that amateurs might design a drug cartel is preposterous.
EK Amateur bioengineers have come under fire in the last couple of years. Scientifically, how close is the work that you are doing to bioterrorism?
DG Technically speaking, it’s a question of intention. The fears over bioterrorism are overblown; the level of sophistication to produce a novel pathogen is so great, and the odds of creating it by accident are infinitesimally small. The last successful bioterrorist took anthrax from government labs where he had top security clearance.
EK What’s your dream project?
DG I’d like to build a storefront where students can come during the day to work on synthetic biology. After hours, the space would be an incubator for amateurs to engineer organisms the world has yet to see. Surprisingly, we’re almost there. Our DIY Lab in Brooklyn should be open by the time this interview is in print.
EK What is your end goal? To further technology? To influence policy?
DG To make stuff.
Steve Kurtz, a ‘bioartist’ and professor at SUNY Buffalo, was detained for 22 hours on suspicions of bioterrorism when police found petri dishes with biological specimens – part of an installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art – in his apartment when Kurz called them to report the death of his wife in 2004. The samples were deemed safe, and Kurz was sent home after one week in jail.