A Guide to DIYbio (updated 2019)

Almost Everything You Need to Know About “Biohacking” (with links)

A long time ago at Thought For Food, I mentioned to Christine Gould that I should eventually write a post about biohacking, rounding up all of the facts that I could about how to get started teaching yourself the basic tenets of synthetic biology, setting up a laboratory space, starting a biotech business, common events, and resources you need to get started.

A Background to “Biohacking”

Since the discovery of DNA in 1953, biology has become more and more accessible to the layperson. Biohacking is the overarching practice of creating and using tools, methods or exploits to modify and/or measure biology for the distinct purpose of changing existing systems to suit a novel purpose (normally to improve upon the human condition).

“Oh geez Rick, I think this DNA is coiled the wrong way!”

History of Biohacking / DIY Ethos

“Do-it-yourself” gained mainstream acceptance as a term in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It is a movement dedicated to the empowering idea that anyone is able to perform tasks that used to the completely in the realm of experts and professionals. Being an autodidact and training yourself in a complex subject such as biotechnology or rocket science is a continuation of the same philosophy governing the DIY ethos.

What can I do with DIYbio/synthetic biology?

You can make new foods, materials, clothes, colors, medicine… virtually anything that currently exists in the world can be made with the tools you learn through DIYbio. As George Church, a prominent figure in synthetic biology said:

He’s like the synthetic biology Santa

Inspiration

Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Some companies that started out of DIYbio labs include: Spira, Hyasynth, OpenTrons, Bento Bio, Chai, Microsynbiotix, Pili, Kilobaser, Algiknit, BluePha, Nyoka, and more.

Education: How to Learn DIYbio

So now that you’ve gotten some inspiration, let’s dive deep into some of the best resources to learn how to properly engineer organisms.

Locations

The very best thing you can do when starting to learn a new topic is to find a community of people with shared interests. There’s been an explosion of spaces that now offer seminars, workshops, classes and tools for synthetic biology. See if one is located in your city. Some of the first DIYbio labs in the US are also the most prominent, including: Counter Culture Labs, Biocurious, Genspace, and BUGSS.

Events

Another way to get a sense of the community is to attend one of the events. This is a great way to find other like-minded individuals and potentially a mentor to guide your work.

Classes

Now that you’ve found a community, it’s time to start training. Luckily enough, there are plenty of classes available online to begin learning about synthetic biology. I’ve arranged these in order of beginner to advanced.

Guides

Boolean Biotech: An all-around great guide to learn how to make a workflow using a cloud laboratory like Transcriptic. In addition, this blog is fantastic to follow if you’re interested in computational biology.

Read Papers

One of the big things you’ll discover in the DIYbio community is that everyone reads papers. That’s the main source of new knowledge.

  1. If nothing smells funny, read the keywords and abstract to get a sense if it answers the question/project you’re working on. I like starting with literature reviews of the topic first to get a good grasp of the entire state-of-the-art in the field.
  2. If you find good evidence that the paper has some information you’re looking for, skip all the way to the conclusion and read that.
  3. Next, read through the discussion section, highlighting any lingering questions and future experiments the author might perform. This is so you can keep an eye out for these questions in other papers you read.
  4. Go through the methods/materials section, noting down the proper reagents, papers cited and protocols. This is the bread and butter of what you’ll practice in the lab so be sure to understand the steps. Science is like a recipe and this section teaches you how to bake the proverbial cake.
  5. If you know the topic well-enough, skip the introduction.
  6. Finally, seek out any additional papers to read in the references. This is why starting with literature reviews are best because they are a gold mine of scientific findings and the references page is like a choose-your-own adventure book of scientific knowledge.

Media

For some reason, the majority of people in the biohacker community communicate 1-on-1 via Facebook. We all hate it but it works. I’ve listed some of the most active resources below.

Equipment

So you’ve got inspired, found a community, read some papers and started figuring out a specific experiment to practice. What if you don’t have the proper equipment? Well, lucky for you the biohacking community has been building low-cost DIY equipment for years now, or scavenging plasmids from strange places, and there are a plethora of resources available for the scrappy scientist. WARNING: be careful with some items and putting together your own equipment — there is the potential for minimal danger in doing so.

DIY Equipment

iGEM Catalog of Parts: Great resource for project ideas and plasmid parts.

Buying Equipment

Some equipment just isn’t worth trying to build. If you start with trash, you often end up with trash. Auction sites, university surplus and eBay can yield some amazing finds. I’ve built a fully-equipped analytical chemistry lab (estimated equipment value ~$500,000+) for less than $12,000. Even kitting out your own home lab can be done with ~$1,000.

Funding Your Project

Launching a career in DIYbio is a daunting task. It’s challenging to support yourself at the very beginning — most DIYbiologists teach, lead workshops, or have other jobs to pay their science habit. These are a few methods that seem to work:

Software Tools

Design: Genome Compiler, SnapGene, Geneious, Cello, Genetic Constructor, j5, APE, OmicTools (collection), Wikigenes (collection), GenoCAD, Wikipedia list of software, ChemDraw, NEB software, Agilent Primer design, BLAST, open source bioinformatics software, and more.

Important Note: Safety + Fundamentals

Depending on where you are in the world, there are different regulations required to practice bioengineering. Be sure to adhere to local rules and regulations when starting otherwise you may be endangering both yourself, your project and your community. Since DIYbio is still in its infancy, some commonsense rules apply.

Example: My Personal Workflow

When editing this round-up post, someone mentioned that I should provide a concrete example of how to go about using these resources so I decided to include my personal story of how I got started learning and how I currently use these tools in my normal day-to-day work.

Conclusion

That just about covers practically everything you need to get started. Be sure to check back here as I expect to go through and update this routinely as more information comes out every year and the community matures.

Founder @spirainc - creating photosynthetic tech to tackle global challenges, starting with local production of industrial chemicals. @thatmre

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