DIYbio – fringe biotech

synonyms (but not quite): biohacking, hobbyist biotech, garage biology, kitchen biology, citizen science, peer production, bioart, and biopunk.

Post-PhD I’m keen to get back into biotech, but frustrated that most links I find doesn’t reflect what I want to do. Turns out this is a area of study; this post is a reflection on a recent article by Nora S. Vaage (Fringe Biotechnology, March 2017, open access). Like the art-science post, I’m so haggard from the ideologies, the ‘radical <insert word here>. I want to work with people who quietly just get on with it. The quiet bit, of course, makes it hard to find out about them.

The research question that has motivated the introduction of the neologism of fringe biotechnology is: How can one conceptualise the ways in which DIYbio and bioart are interlinked and yet significantly different practices? The article will develop the concept of ‘fringe biotechnology’ as a response to this question. Expanding on this spatial metaphor, I suggest that a kind of boundary-work (Gieryn, 1983) is at play in these fringe endeavours, and that they may form heterotopias (Foucault, 1986) in which biotechnologies are mirrored.

I used to get really annoyed at what I saw as high-convoluntin’ language like ‘boundary-work’ and ‘heterotopias’. But this is really what is going on. It’s something on the edges, on the boundary of things, which sheds light to both sides, and it’s a mix, a patchwork, a mestiza. (“Foucault sees heterotopias as “counter-sites”, spaces that function as a sort of mirror for other aspects of reality.”) So, there we are. Complicated. And to explore this, one needs complicated words, or a helluva lot of them.

It seems then, that ‘DIYbio’ has a thread of  nonscientific aims, and rather than scientific aims, have public, social and cultural uses of the technologies.

What fringe biotechnologists practice is not the life sciences or medicine, nor even, necessarily, engineering. Rather, they engage in a heterogeneous range of practices using the methods and concepts of biotech for various purposes.
Model of the DIYbio landscape according to H. De Vriend and P. Van Boheemen, Figure 1 of Vaage’s article. I tried to pin down my interests with the orange circles. The author critiques this image, and provides a different mapping of fringe biotech below, where I again indicate my interests.

Interestingly, I am not techno-optimistic. And I’m exhausted by activism. I want to crawl under my rock, wait out the apocalypse, and play with some genes while down there.

Fringe biotechnology practices have at least three important factors in common::

  1. bring biotechnology into the public eye
  2. use biotechnological methods for purposes other than the scientific, by actors that do not necessarily have the same formal training, makes them subject to ethical scrutiny and
  3. relate topically to the issues of biotechnology, from patenting rights to pertinent applications for the technologies

 one of the reasons “for the inhibiting costs of scientific equipment is their need to be as precise as possible. This is not always the need of artists or hobbyists”, who therefore have an interest in developing simpler, less expensive tools suitable for use in makeshift labs or in the field.

I don’t need to “dismantle hierarchies and open up science to those who are currently outsiders”. I am not an outsider and the best way to dismantle hierarchies is to simply make them irrelevant. I need cheap ways to do biotech. I am not bothered by making everything myself, I want to use whatever is most efficient. Having said that I need to know how to make it myself in case the original source becomes unavailable, and that is worth a premium in effort or payment. I think that is core to the free-and-open-source ethos.

iGEM: International Genetically Engineered Machine

I think perhaps after SotM (if we get it, hold thumbs) I should work on an iGEM (South/ern/Sub-Saharan) Africa. In the lead there will have to be workshops, online courses etc to build the skills. It will probably need a bit more time because of the project time, we don’t have an uninterrupted summer (our winter) break to work on projects here.

Bentolab – lab in a box

This is interesting, but like the Foldscope I am a bit sceptical. The idea is great but challenged environments, like, you know, Africa (#sarcasm), the challenges are not obvious. One might have access to a lab but not the reagents to refill the HPLC. Or the training. Or the licence expired because proprietary is best, you know? (#sarcasm) The expensive machine is there, sparkly and new. As I said, not a techno-optimist. But these initiatives can help with education and excitement, so yay them.

Hacteria Amplino develops affordable, portable diagnostics based on real time PCR technology.  A robust diagnostic device that anyone can use anywhere.

Open PCR, the Dremelfuge23 and the Genelaser open-source projects … Open PCR, Amplino and LavaAmp have been racing each other to develop the best, cheapest PCR machine

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