Biohacking, iGEM and the limits of citizen science
5 October, 2012
On 25th September, the UCL iGEM team organised an event that was dedicated to demonstrating their work with the Biohacking enthusiasts at the London Hackspace, on the rights and risks on public participation in developing a biobrick. The event raised some fundamental questions about ethics and limits of citizen science, but first, some jargon entanglement is required.
Biobricks are segments of DNA that perform a specific function, been identified and submitted to a repository so other researchers can use them. They are being used in synthetic biology (synthbio) where an engineering approach is being used to construct genetically modified organisms. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is encouraging undergraduate students to develop biobricks and learn about synthbio. This year, the UCL iGEM team is focusing on finding ways to clean the oceans .
The London Hackspace is a place where people with various technical interests come to explore a wide range of technological experimentation through making them and trying them in different ways. This ranges from carpentry and laser cutting of metal and plastic, to computing and electronics. The members decide for themselves what topic they want to explore and how to go about doing that. A subgroup of the hackspace decided to focus on biohacking – the DIY version of synthbio. And this is where things get interesting from citizen science perspective. The group decided that they will focus on creating a biobrick which will act as ‘antifreeze’ for bacteria so it can survive in lower temperature environment, and started experimenting.
The link between UCL students and the hackspace members developed by sharing expertise of how to handle genetic experiments and the goal of creating an official biobrick that was created with significant public input. Generally, there are restrictions on who is allowed to submit them and they are not open to the public.
By attending the event and talking to people that were involved in the project, it transpires that this is a challenging example of citizen science. It opens up many ethical, practical and theoretical challenges and questions.
First, unlike the use of electronics or smartphones, interacting with a ‘wet laboratory’ involved many tacit skills and knowledge which are not easily recorded in the literature and are passed from one experienced user of the lab to another. How should these skills taught and should it be opened to amateur or hobbyists? Is it better to ensure that people are competent or is it better to have it as a barrier to entry?
Second, because a lot of the risks are not always visible to the naked eye and other senses, accidents with material that can be dangerous can happen. At the same time, the biohackers are concerned about these aspects and reported to be more attuned then some of the students, although accidents can happen out of lack of knowledge. Is it just an issue that they are taking a risk or should strong regulations apply?
Thirdly, synthbio is fairly much in the forefront of science – so side effects, risks, applications and policy decisions are open. Should that be a space where citizen scientists experiment and try in their kitchens?
There are many more questions and queries that this case is opening – but it was also an enjoyable and fascinating evening.