A Glimpse into the DIY Biotech Movement: Biohacking, Vegan Cheese, Algae Beer and Bacterial Art!

article biofablabs

Fab Labs have become hugely fashionable since 2010… But what about Bio Fab Labs? Have you ever thought about sharing your RNA or DNA amplification equipment? It can be a massive help for entrepreneurs or students, and Bio Fab Labs are starting to emerge in backyards across the world for Education, Innovation and even creative SynBio art. This new era of DIY biotech is AWESOME.

fablab-logoFab Labs started as digital virtual laboratories set up to ‘inspire’ people more than anything, by encouraging students and entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into tangible prototypes. It allowed them to have access to a range of advanced digital fabrication curricula and manufacturing technologies, including 3D printers. This project was then organized for the mass scale by the Fab Lab Foundation in 2009, as a non-for-profit support system at MIT for the growing Fab Lab network.

The principle of this type of workshop was born at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms program, with an applied engineering course called “How to Make (Almost) Anything“, which showed students that it really was possible to invent virtually anything from using scrap electronics and raw materials.

The same principle has now been extended to the biotechnology field (of course!). Students or start-ups can now access a simple biotechnology ‘hacker workshop’, otherwise a Bio Fab Lab.

A Fab Lab in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland Source: Fab Labs)


For a biotech start-up, it grants the ability to test an idea quickly without waiting for the complex process of collaborating with a outside laboratory (which is an awful lot of commitment and expense!)…but most importantly, you have a great deal of autonomy within the labs, so you can be effectively mentored without all the stringent guidelines that other programs enforce. Which is great for innovation!

(Sources: DIY BIO & Knowtext)
(Sources: DIY BIO & Knowtext)

This trend appeared with the DIY Bio (Do It Yourself) movement in 2008, with the mission of establishing a vibrant, productive and safe community of DIY biologists….and individuals from other areas of expertise too. Their main mission was to implement the belief that promotion of the biotech field and a greater public understanding of biotechnology has the potential to benefit everyone – as is the same mentality with the whole ‘Open Access’ movement in academia.

(Source: Fab Lab Foundation)
(Source: Fab Lab Foundation)

The first DIY Biotech Hacker Space in the world was Genspace – indeed the first-ever community biotechnology laboratory. This was a Biosafety Level One facility in Brooklyn (New York) which offered hands-on courses to the public as a citizen science outreach program for Biotechnology.

It did this by providing extracurricular experiences for students and encouraging scientific entrepreneurship, particularly in the fields of molecular and synthetic biology.

The lab’s glassware, micro-pipettes, centrifuges, electrophoresis machines, incubators, microscopes and other scientific equipment are all donated. Of course, they support many projects like iGEM (the largest SynBio competition in the world). The 2015 results for iGEM can be found here. Genspace also supported other publicly run workshops such as ‘BioArt & Textiles‘ from the British artist Anna Dumitriu.

One of the GenSpace iGEM Project from last year (Left. Source: Genspace)
The GenSpace iGEM Project from last year (Left – Source: Genspace). Right: Anna Dumitriu’s ‘BioArt & Textiles’ workshop run at Genspace for the public in 2013 (Credit: Anna Dumitriu)

Then you have the famous La Paillasse, started up in a Suburban squat in Paris in only 2011. La Paillasse is an interdisciplinary network of labs which extends from the Phillipines, through Lyon (France) and even Cork (Ireland). Indeed, it is one of the largest networks of open and public lab spaces in the world, with 750m2 right in the heart of Paris (from 2014).

Partners which have provided materials for La Paillasse include Sanofi, ImmunoClin and the hotly-discussed Galapagos to mention a couple. La Paillasse has also stemmed some very unusual start-ups, such as Pili (founded in January), which aims to develop the first ink made with bacteria. I met the co-founder Jeremie Blache a few weeks ago, who mentioned they were about to launch a fundraiser in the UK as part of the IndieBio accelerator program in Cork.  You can read our last article about Pili here.

Making Ink with Bacteria – educational classes and SynBio art (Source: Pili / LaPaillasse)

Then there is BioCURIOUS – aka Silicon Valley’s ‘Hackerspace for Biotech’. They have some awesome community projects to encourage public biotech innovation going on at the moment. For 3 years they have been working to design an open source DIY cell printer.

They also managed to made ‘real vegan cheese‘ with milk proteins (casein produced by engineered baker’s yeast) combined with water and vegan oil to make Vegan Milk (converted into ‘cheese’ through standard cheese-making processes). You can see their rather witty project video here as part of an Indiegogo campaign (evidently Vegans really miss cheese…) though I should add: We’re definitely not Vegan at Labiotech 😮


Source: RealVeganCheese
(Source: RealVeganCheese)

And the last bio Fab Lab that I will discuss is from Denmark. Biologigaragen supports many projects, one of which is very amusing… Algae based Beer!

The Algae Bar will showcase at the Transart Fest in Copenhagen (Denmark) this weekend from the 6-8th November. The drink being served is a unique mix of cyanobacteria, algae, and beer. Thus,  the Algae Bar is the product of a trans-collaboration between two  (once considered different) species: the artists and the scientists. Other artistic movements include the Berlin designers ‘Blond & Bieber’ who are using Algae to make inks for fashion.

The Algae Bar will be at the Transart Fest this weekend in Copenhagen (Source: Biologigaragen)

As you can see, we are in a period where collaborative projects are increasingly common across many fields – we are no longer a secular force in Science! That is why the DIY Bio movement will continue to flourish, especially in the age of the internet…

So, this is fantastic for start-ups and students looking for a SynBio launchpad. But what about big companies? Will they be able to share their labs to promote innovation too?

A fantasitc by Ellen Jorgenson Ted Talk on GenSpace, ‘BioHacking’ and the DIY Bio Movement.


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