[hackerspaces] Article: Turning Geek Into Chic (NY Times)
kanzure at gmail.com
Sat Dec 18 17:52:12 CET 2010
Turning Geek Into Chick, or: NY Times can't get enough of DIYbio this month
GLOWING Fluorescent E. coli samples at GenSpace in Brooklyn.
By JED LIPINSKI
Published: December 17, 2010
IT was a school night in November, and a ragtag band of self-appointed
biologists was trolling the Web for discount lab equipment, the way some
people scan Gilt for designer deals. Coming across a new NanoDrop
Spectrophotometer, a device used to measure quantities of DNA, they perked
“Ooh, that one’s 30 percent off,” said Sung Won Lim, 22, who works the
graveyard shift at a 24-hour grocery in Elmhurst, Queens.
He spoke too soon. “That only applies to the service plan,” said Russell
Durrett, 23, who happens to be a lab technician at New York University’s
Center for Genomics. The actual price, he noted, was $10,650.
The group was hanging out at GenSpace, a new do-it-yourself biology lab
carved out of an old office building in downtown Brooklyn. Its members, who
call themselves “garage biologists” or “biohackers,” are trying to do for
modern biology what hackers did for computers: turning geek into chic.
Aided by Web sites including OpenWetWare.org, which give laypeople access to
the same information as Ph.D candidates — not to mention the easy
availability of computers that rival those found in university and
pharmaceutical labs — these biohackers are reinventing Frankenstein for the
Their pursuits are anything but amateur. They are cloning E. coli strains to
become resistant to radiation, genetically engineering bacteria to prevent
malaria and, in one case, seeking a cure for cancer using common items like
salt water and radio waves.
But not all their undertakings are so bold. Mr. Lim, for instance, is
sequencing a DNA swab from his cheek, in an effort to chart the migratory
patterns of Koreans like himself.
Such experiments are typical of today’s D.I.Y. biology movement, or DIYbio,
a motley crew that includes artists, bankers, baristas and freelance
writers, many of whom haven’t cracked a science textbook since high school.
DIYbio is part of a wider movement of amateur scientists who, empowered by
online resource sharing, are pursuing high-level scientific research in
their basements and backyards. Their ilk made headlines this summer when
Mark Suppes, a 32-year-old Web developer in Brooklyn, built a nuclear
reactor in his studio, making him the 38th amateur physicist to fuse atoms
This same hobbyist spirit drives DIYbio. And while it has yet to produce any
groundbreaking research, it has developed some ingenious devices. Biohackers
have built centrifuges from commercial eggbeaters, powerful microscopes from
cheap Webcams and photobioreactors from soda bottles and fish-tank pumps.
GenSpace, which opened on Dec. 10, bills itself as the first nonprofit
community bio lab in the country. Situated on the seventh floor of the
Metropolitan Exchange Building, a former bank near the Brooklyn Academy of
Music, it resembles a makeshift garage lab transported to a light-filled
Brooklyn artist’s loft, with the requisite chill, freight elevator and
flaking cinderblock walls.
GenSpace’s seven members, who split the $750 a month rent, hail from wildly
divergent backgrounds, which encourage creative cross-pollination. On a
recent Sunday afternoon, a handful of them met for doughnuts and coffee
around a reclaimed conference table.
Nurit Bar-Shai, an artist in her late 30s, said that her lack of science
degrees frees her to ask “stupid questions” like “Why does an agar dish have
to be flat?” So she’s trying to sculpture agar “like Jell-O” to “observe
bacterial colonies in 3-D.”
Chetan Taralekar, 30, an options trader at Barclays Capital and a former
videogame programmer, said he saw a parallel between writing computer code
and manipulating genetic code. “But with genetics, the medium is reality,”
he said. “You’re programming life.”
A primary goal of GenSpace is to promote science as a viable hobby for
children and adults. “The more people get their hands dirty in a lab, the
less likely they’ll be to have knee-jerk reactions to things like stem-cell
research and genetically modified organisms,” said Daniel Grushkin, 33, a
freelance science writer and an unofficial spokesman for the group.
The space has a distinct D.I.Y. appeal. The walls of its self-enclosed wet
lab were built from salvaged sliding glass doors and its interior is stocked
with dated equipment (pipettes, bench top centrifuges, an ultraviolet light
box) acquired free from downsizing biotech startups. Dog-eared books
(“Bioinformatics for Dummies”; “Genetic Engineering: Dream of Nightmare?”)
sit on shelves from an old high school chemistry lab.
“Our landlord is a real pack rat,” said Ellen Jorgensen, 55, a founding
member who is the unofficial science adviser. Her day job is assistant
professor of clinical research at New York Medical College. “He had a lot of
this stuff just lying around.”
It may not be fancy, but the space is a huge leap from the group’s humble
start in 2009. “There were always a bunch of people crying out into the
darkness on the DIYbio Google group: ‘Where are the New York people?’ ” Ms.
Jorgensen said. “I finally just typed, ‘Let’s meet at the Viand Coffee Shop
near the Beacon Theater at 7 on Tuesday.’ ”
Three people showed up: Mr. Durrett, Mr. Lim and Mr. Grushkin, who wanted to
write about the budding DIYbio scene. “We assimilated him instead,” Ms.
A few weeks later, they met at Mr. Grushkin’s brownstone apartment in Park
Slope, Brooklyn, and performed their first experiment: extracting DNA from
crushed strawberries. Using salt and dishwashing liquid to break down the
cell wall, they were able to remove the fruit’s DNA with wooden shish kebab
“It was all a little bizarre,” Mr. Grushkin recalled. “I’d only met these
people once, and now they’re in my house. There was this giddy anticipation
mixed with, you know, this might perhaps be a disaster.”
For their second meeting, they posted an open invitation on their Google
group titled “Pizza and DNA night.” Three reporters showed up. “They’d
obviously been trolling the site,” Mr. Grushkin said. News reports were
questioning whether amateur biologists posed a threat to national security.
An article in The Boston Globe in 2008 said the group raised “fears that
people could create a deadly microbe on purpose.”
Under the supervision of Ms. Jorgensen, the hobbyists laid a plastic tarp
over Mr. Grushkin’s living room table and genetically engineered E. coli
bacteria with spliced DNA. The reporters stood on Mr. Grushkin’s parquet
floor, jotting notes.
“I thought that any second the cops would break in and we’d all be
arrested,” Mr. Grushkin said.
Biohobbyists have had run-ins with the law. In 2004, Steve Kurtz, a SUNY
Buffalo art professor, ordered some bacteria from a Pittsburgh geneticist to
use in an exhibit, only to find his house surrounded by F.B.I. agents in
Hazmat suits. Mr. Kurtz was arrested and charged with mail fraud that took
him four years of legal battles to clear.
So when GenSpace members began building their new lab, they worked with the
F.B.I. to write biosafety guidelines. “We don’t regard the GenSpace people
as dangerous at all,” said Ed You, a special agent in the F.B.I.’s Weapons
of Mass Destruction Directorate. To prevent any misunderstandings, Mr. You
encourages biohackers to “reach out to their local Weapons of Mass
More DIYbio labs are under way. DIYbio.org, an open-source discussion board
begun in 2008, now has 1,557 members, with formalized groups in Boston;
Seattle; Austin, Tex.; Los Angeles; and San Francisco, as well as in London,
Paris and Bangalore, India. Similar organizations are cropping up, like
Quantified Self, an international network of people who monitor their mood,
sleep habits or blood pressure to uncover new aspects of the human
Last summer, Joseph Jackson, an entrepreneur, transhumanist and “citizen
scientist,” helped raise more than $35,000 on Kickstarter for a science lab
called BioCurious in the Silicon Valley. And MacKenzie Cowell, 26, a founder
of DIYbio.org, is building a wet lab on the second floor of Sprout, a
warehouselike hacker space in Cambridge, Mass.
For its part, GenSpace is concentrating on short-term goals, like recruiting
more members to help share the rent and branching into high schools.
Meanwhile, the members are getting acquainted with the lab. Ms. Jorgensen
recently made some bacteria glow by splicing it with green fluorescent
protein. Mr. Taralekar learned how to separate DNA in a gel. And Ms.
Bar-Shai held a pipette for the first time.
“The school I went to in Queens didn’t even have a lab,” said Mr. Lim, who
became interested in science by reading Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking as a
teenager. “I’d eventually like to see students walk out of GenSpace with
their own genetically engineered organisms. That, for me, would be really
Earlier this month:
Home Labs on the Rise for the Fun of Science
1 512 203 0507
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