Community Live: DIYbio at Manchester Science Festival 2012
By Andrew Back
DIY biology is a hot topic and has piqued the interest of the Wellcome Trust and NESTA in the UK and the FBI in the US. What has it got to do with open source and hacking? Quite a lot as it happens and those curious could get their hands dirty, metaphorically speaking, at a series of workshops held in Manchester over the weekend of 3 and 4 November 2012.
The idea behind DIY biology is simple and it's essentially about applying the hacker ethic to the field of biology. Asa Calow, a director of Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab), explains that for the Manchester chapter of the DIYbio organisation “to have fun is the principle objective”, but notes that “with DIYbio as whole, everyone is motivated in a different way”. Which, of course, is fundamental to the operation of open source and maker communities.
Setting up the Manchester group
The motivation for setting up DIYBIO_MCR came when Asa attended the Real Hackers Program DNA session at the O'Reilly eTech conference in 2009, where participants got to program bacteria to glow, turn red or smell of banana. But it wasn't until 2010 that a joint application with Manchester Metropolitan University was submitted to the Wellcome Trust for a grant to make it a reality. Since then the group has built its own OpenPCR machine, and has run events on a diverse range of topics including building microbial fuel cells and creating a crowd-sourced microbe map of Manchester.
In autumn 2011 MadLab hosted the UK's first DIYbio Summit and this summer Asa and fellow director, Rachel Turner, were invited by the FBI to a DIYbio Outreach event hosted at NASA in Mountain View. Speaking of the FBI, Asa says that he was “quite amazed by how sanguine they were”, going on to suggest that any initial concerns have now subsided and “It's gone from people saying that definitely shouldn't happen – people building their own lab equipment – someone should be keeping an eye on those guys, to being a bit more relaxed about it.”
When asked about ethics and the risk of someone doing something dangerous Asa said that a draft code of ethics had been produced and that guidelines were presently informal, but that groups “work on the same premise: no pathogens and no bioweapons”. Going on to say that “It's the same as your typical hackerspace or makerspace: there's an implicit thing, no one is going to just start making guns – it just doesn't happen.”