Biohacking: Lab science for everyone

10 Aug 2016

Written by Sarah Bailey

Have you ever wanted to live out all your science-related dreams and tinker with high tech lab equipment, but you left science behind when school ended? Or have you got an innovative idea that needs access to lab equipment to get it off the ground? If the answer is yes, then maybe biohacking is for you.

Biohacking, or DIY Biology, is the 21st century way for the public to get actively involved in the science revolution. All over the world amateur enthusiasts and professional biologists alike are opening laboratories that anyone can use, be it to fulfil a hobby, to provide community-based learning, or to kick start a business idea.

The term biohacking is in itself not a new one: it was first coined over 20 years ago. However, since the mid-2000s the movement has steadily gained momentum. The premise is simple: groups or individuals, often with an active professional interest in lab science, set up DIY labs in community spaces, or even just in someone’s garage. Then anyone can pitch up and use the equipment, sharing their skills and gaining new ones.

Proper DIY Bio all started ten years ago in the United States. Rob Carlson, after writing an article in Wired Magazine, bought lab equipment on eBay to kit out his garage, to illustrate how easy it is to set up your own lab space. Since then various groups have come together to provide either free, or very cheap, access to lab equipment and materials. Many have sought to crowd fund their projects to get them off the ground using sites such as Kickstarter, and, once established, as well as allowing individuals to access the lab they also hold regular meetings for those new to the concept, to engage and train users in how to explore biology in their own way.

The beauty of biohack labs is their open access nature.

From community-based lab groups through to the individual working alone in their garage, all it takes to get started is buying the right equipment. Though there is then the small matter of learning how to make it all work – genetics in particular requires advanced technical knowledge that can’t be learned overnight. Still, despite the need to refine one’s skills, for independent innovators DIY Bio offers an affordable, and much more accessible, alternative to trying to gain access to commercial or academic lab space. This is the same spirit that drives our Discovery Awards, with which we aim to provide support for teams who wish to enter the Longitude Prize but need access to resources like lab space and collaborators.

The DIY Bio revolution has even started to move outside the biohack lab, with portable labs now available. The Bento Lab is one such example. Its Bento box-style design incorporates PCR equipment, a thermocycler, centrifuge and DNA electrophoresis box that have all been condensed into in a handheld mini-lab, really pushing the boundaries of what is possible outside the confines of a traditional lab for a fraction of the cost.

DIY Bio is now firmly a global phenomenon, with various labs springing up in the UK, US, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Australia to name but a few. And it shows no signs of slowing: biohacking now even has its own conference scene and this year’s showcase of what DIYBio has to offer takes place in Oakland, California in September.

Want to get involved and try your hand at DIY biology? Find your nearest biohack lab here.