DIY bio, programming culture, and the cultural divide

I guess I put my foot in it when I wrote that Genome Technology article on DIY Bio. I've already gotten a couple of e-mails today and I can see on the Google groups DIY bio section, that I managed to offend some people by suggesting doing biotechnology successfully at home might mean that you actually have to learn some biology.

Funny, huh?

It's like I suggested something heretical. People have to learn how to program to write software, don't they? I don't see that doing biotechnology as a hobby would be any different.

Anyway, here's my response to the DIY google group critics. I've rephrased some of the comments and suppositions on the Google group list serve into questions since reading through e-mail threads is a bit cumbersome. No doubt I'll get corrected in the comments.

1. Do I believe you can only learn biotechnology techniques at a university?

No, of course not. I never said anything about where learning should occur. If I were asked, I would say the best place to learn biotechnology methods is a community college biotech program. âº
But, classes take time and money and aren't always easy to schedule into your life, so why not learn biotechnology from each other and do it as a hobby? That's fine with me.

2. Do I object to people sharing knowledge and teaching themselves how to isolate DNA and clone genes?

No, of course not! I'm a teacher. I love the idea that people want to do biotechnology as a hobby.

One cautionary note though, there are some possible hazards to biotechnology lab work and those freaked me out when I first realized people were cloning in their kitchens. I have to point out, that if you're going to be involved in a hobby where you're using potentially hazardous materials, you have an obligation to learn about those materials and use them safely.

As a microbiologist, I agree that it seems fairly safe to work with E. coli K12 at home. However, some of the bacteria discussed on the Google DIYbio list serve are not good candidates for DIYbio projects, two examples: Agrobacterium and Acinetobacter. Acinetobacter has been increasingly implicated in hospital-acquired infections and Agrobacterium, while I love it as a research subject, is a plant pathogen and as such, shouldn't be used by hobbyists.

3. Do I object to people making mistakes in cloning experiments?

No! In the GT article, I casually mentioned that you can't just put an E. coli plasmid into Lactobacillus and expect it to work. It bothered to me to learn that some DIYers resented the suggestion that doing biotechnology would require them to learn some biology.

Dis my favorite subject will you? En garde!

Quoted from the list serve:

To my knowledge this doesn't really exist- so far, my understanding of
plasmid design has been "eh, figure out if there are any nucleotide or
codon biases in the organism's genome, and just make sure you make up
a vector that exhibits a similar bias." But maybe there's more to it,
and I'm just uneducated- so anybody should feel free to send me papers
or references on this topic.

Why does this kind of stuff annoy me?

Because this information does exist and I'm sure there are people who would help.  A well-constructed Google search should point to lots of biotechnology and microbiology blogs where this person could have asked the question and gotten an answer. There is even a great text book called "Principles of Gene Manipulation" by Primrose where you can learn all about plasmids and host range.

Another great place to ask these kinds of questions is Bitesize Bio, a wonderful blog that covers just this sort of thing. And I would even answer these kinds of questions.  There's no need to assume that if you don't know something, that people are hiding it from you.

4. Can you comment on your own posts in the DIY bio outreach thread?

Yes. I am very interested in the potential for outreach to elementary and high schools.

But, here's the deal:

Don't do outreach unless you've identified the take home message that you want students to remember. Sure, it's fun to isolate DNA from strawberries. But what do you want the students to learn? That strawberries have DNA?

Teachers have a limited amount of time in the classroom and every moment counts. Don't waste their time if you don't have a clearly articulated learning goal. If you're going to go isolate DNA with a group of students, you really ought to know how the isolation method works. 

One of the strengths of the DIYbio community is in bringing together people from different backgrounds and areas and getting them involved in biotechnology. There is an incredible ethic of sharing among programmers, as embodied in the Open Source movement, that I truly admire and respect and I'm interested to see how that translates to biotechnology. But there's an angry libertarian side in the software world, too. Hopefully, some of the attitudes that I see in the DIYbio list serve won't make the professional biologists start to say RTFM.

More like this

Would you help this guys?in exchange for?

Dear Readers,
you may wish to check out one of the main threads discussing Sandra's GT article on the DIYbio google group.

Dear Sandra,
Thanks for posting your followup to the diybio discussion about your GT article. I don't think you put your foot in anything and I think most people enjoyed your comments and suggestions. I particularly liked your DIYbio project ideas, such as engineering heavy-metal detecting yeast.

I think new diybio and iGEM teams benefit greatly from having the input of an expert like yourself when brainstorming project ideas to help them choose ideas that are likely to be achievable with existing methods and techniques, which you are familiar with. But I also think that the fresh, blue-sky perspective brought by newcomers helps them imagine novel new territory. Together, the combination is very powerful, and I wish there were more experts like you helping brainstorm diybio projects. Maybe we should start a new google group just for that purpose - I am sure the thousands of iGEM students this year would find it indispensable.

Speaking of DIYbio model organisms like Baker's Yeast, I just want to clarify that the species of Acinetobacter suggested on the list as good fit for diybio was Acinetobacter baylyi, not Acinetobacter baumannii. Just mentioning the Genus of the organism is ambiguous, since Acinetobacter is a large genus and A. baylyi is not pathogenic like A. baumannii. This sort of confusion concerns me because it demonstrates how easily a journalist could negatively portray innocent work with ADP1, so maybe we should just stick with yeast.

Anyway, I hope you aren't put off by the critics. The loudest/most frequent voices, especially on mailing lists, should not be taken to represent the majority opinion. I hope you keep you project ideas and advice coming and perhaps share your bioinformatics idea with the group.


Hello Sandra,

first of all thanks for the great Blog - been stopping by quite some time. And thank you for pointing DIYBio out - I heard the name before, but had not really realized what it was about. Currently I am not sure if I am shocked or awed by this idea. On one hand I do agree that the spirit behind FOSS seems to be driving this as well, and as such DIYBio might be tremendously interesting to watch. Also, I'd say that any interest in biology in the public is a good thing. On the other hand I share many of your concerns - and would like to add on of my own. Visiting the webpage one "recent comment" made the hairs on my neck stand up - that guy suggested: "We should develop an inexpensive <$500. diy stem cell extraction kit.". Wow. While I do not think that anything bad might come from this, I do see one problem - these poeple are about to touch on some very sensitive public issues here. Issues where hobbyists entering the equation might well be problematic from a purely political viewpoint. My point is that besides all the dangers involved in untrained people handling potentially dangerous chemicals and organisms, the idea that there are people doing in their basement what freaks most people out when they hear about it being done in a "safe" lab might be too much for many less-science-supporting people. This might be more a problem of lacking science PR, and not originating from the hobbyists, but it might become a problem nonetheless.

Anyways, I am intrigued either way and will lurk around on their list for a while. If I think I can help out, I will.

Thanks again,


p.S.: Preview not working - please forgice any typos etc.

You mean people on the internet can be wrong? The more public and accessible any medium, the more false assumptions/understandings you will find. I try not to concentrate on people being wrong, but on the occasion when people are right.