Citizen Science Takes Off: Could Community Labs Hatch the Next Generation of Bio Innovators?

Adrienne Burke

In mid-October, 28-year-old Eri Gentry opened BioCurious, a nonprofit public-use biology laboratory in Sunnyvale, Calif., with 2,400-square-feet of “hacker space for biotech.” It's a sign of the growing importance of "Citizen Science." Nonprofit community labs like BioCurious are sprouting up elsewhere, too. Do-it-yourself biologists are setting up shop in garages, basements, and hacker spaces

worldwide. Executive Director Gentry and five co-founders raised $35,000 for the BioCurious lab on (a site that enables anyone to raise money from the public for creative projects).

It all suggests that we could start seeing more rapid progress in bioscience. In the last 18 months, publications from to have heralded the global rise of "biohacker" activities that include personal genome investigations, synthetic biology experimentation, and reverse-engineered research tools. AP journalist Marcus Wohlsen is one of several who have compared DIY biologists to the early code-hackers who revolutionized personal computing. His 2010 book casts Gentry and her cohorts as pioneers of a movement that is determined to democratize DNA and transform bioscience.

The so-called biopunks have loftier ambitions than building new iPhone apps or social media companies. They want to contribute to society by reengineering life itself, and they want to do it outside the walls of academia and industry.

By effectively lowering the barrier to entry for a biotech startup, community labs like BioCurious are poised to produce the next generation of bio innovations. They provide shared access to costly tools and connections to like-minded partners.

Of course, chances are slim that the next Amgen will emerge from a biopunk lab any time soon. Even the best-funded bio-ventures have a high failure rate. Amateurs with sudden access to pipettes and DNA sequencing tools don’t hold much promise of achieving meaningful scientific breakthroughs. Tom Knight, a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab who was among the notable 1970s code hackers, keeps tabs on the biohacker scene through 's 2,000-plus-member Google group. "I hate to sound elitist," he says, "but you hear a lot of people talking about doing very complex and difficult things in a naive way...things that I know are challenging projects for the very best scientists and engineers in the world." Biopunk author Wohlsen acknowledges, "There are some core differences between computer hacking and biohacking that you can't underestimate."

Those differences, however, are diminishing as biotechnology tools and data become more accessible to the masses. Failed pharmaceutical company firesales are putting state-of-the-art tools within reach of community labs. And biohackers are already themselves engineering inexpensive open-source options for cheap DNA extraction kits, centrifuges, DNA amplification, and gel electrophoresis--key tools for sequencing and analyzing genes.

In addition, genomic technology is advancing so rapidly that it's outpacing Moore's law. While it cost $2 billion to sequence the first composite human genome 11 years ago,  today anyone with $1,000 can obtain their own exome (the code that distinguishes any individual from the reference sequence) in two weeks. Open-science groups such as Genomes Unzipped and the Personal Genome Project are publicizing individual genome sequences, and free online tools such as GET-Evidence and Trait-o-Matic make it easy to analyze them. And with the new $100 GeneLaser kit, developed in a garage by DIYers Mac Cowell and Josh Perfetto, a hobbyist can extract and sequence a fragment of DNA from just about any living organism in a day without a lab.

George Church, a scientific advisor to the DNA testing company 23andMe and a founder of the Personal Genome Project, has trained several DIYbio pioneers in his Harvard Medical School genetics lab. Biohackers are to biotechnology what Steve Jobs was to the IBM S/360 mainframe, he says. Church sees biohackers as early adopters of technology that will eventually be in as many hands as the iPhone and predicts "a complete disruption of the IP landscape" as a result. "Just imagine getting access to knowledge that lets you do something about your genetic destiny. It's as disruptive a technology as you can get."

Another reason community labs bear watching is that, despite the name, a lot of DIYers are far from amateur. Many are PhDs, technical experts, or experienced entrepreneurs. Some have day jobs as professional researchers. Others are under- or unemployed scientists. cofounder Jason Bobe, who organized a congress at the London School of Economics to draft an international code of DIY bio ethics, says, "Calling these people biopunks feels to me like calling Jacques Cousteau in the early SCUBA days a marine punk."

BioCurious executive director Gentry says she expects half her members to be experienced scientists—people like the four former Pacific Biosciences researchers at a recent biohackers' happy hour who, she says, "have a couple of ideas and are looking at a startup." At BioCurious, $150 a month gets you access to critical research tools like gel electrophoresis, real time PCR, incubators, fridges, and freezers till 10pm seven days a week. That compares to rent of $6,000 or more at a typical biotech incubator, Gentry says.

Membership at GenSpace, a 450-square-foot, fully equipped community wetlab that opened in New York City last December, is only $100 per month. "The incubator spaces in New York are so expensive that most entrepreneurs can't afford them," GenSpace president Ellen Jorgensen says. "But there are startup companies all over the U.S. working under conditions similar to us—small staffs, little money, equipment bought on eBay. Nonprofit community labs are very similar and are part of the bright future of biotech."

Beyond providing the means to innovate inexpensively and independently, community labs also keep experimentalists' work beyond the reach of an employer's patent lawyers. Neither BioCurious nor GenSpace take any patent rights to discoveries made in their labs. Like the code-hacking culture, the DIY movement promotes open source and open science, but doesn't prohibit projects that might lead to patentable inventions.

For all the professional interest in community labs, they also aim to expand access to aspiring scientists. GenSpace and BioCurious are both committed to public science education, and consider teachers, artists, and kids key to their communities. Gentry, who majored in economics at Yale, is driven by a desire to make biotechnology more accessible. "There's an elitism around science," she says. "I want to rid American culture of that fear of science by giving the community ways to have fun with it." Those efforts include biosphere-building classes for families and a recent culinary science class that taught participants to engineer a sous vide cooker from a coffee machine.

But mixing newbies with experts may elicit extraordinary ideas. Amateurs are clearly contributing to scientific progress. Sarika Bansal reported on her recently that a crowdsourced team playing Foldit—an online game that challenges gamers to unravel protein structures—solved in under three weeks a protein-folding problem that had stumped biochemists at the University of Washington for 10 years. The game's developers attributed the players' success in part to their lack of understanding about biochemistry, which enabled them to think about the problem in a new way.

Adrien Treuille, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was one of the original creators of Foldit, says similar games and contests on the Internet are reaping important scientific contributions from citizens worldwide. Says Treuille: "That the next wave of biotechnology comes from amateurs is not just possible. It's already happening."

Techonomy 2011 (Nov. 13-15) will continue to explore Citizen Science in the session "Democratizing DNA and the BioPunk Revolution." For more information about the conference visit . You can also follow Techonomy on and .