DIY bioengineering – recap of the recent MIT Soapbox session on DIYbio

My good friend Natalie Kuldell and I had the pleasure of participating at a recent Soapbox session hosted by the MIT Museum on DIY biology.  (Though frankly, I prefer the term DIY bioengineering, because I think hobbyists are going to be a lot more excited by what they can build than by what they can study in the natural world.)  

Probably the best part of the evening was when the audience got to answer two questions.

  1. If you could build anything out of biology, what would you build and why?
  2. What would you ask your neighbors if they were building this organism in the house next door to you?

In response to the first, some wanted to engineer bugs that would clean the bathroom for you.  Others wanted to make organisms that could consume nuclear waste.  Still others wanted to make organisms that could diagnose what was wrong with their dogs.  In response to the second, I think one audience member put it most succinctly when they asked, “Is it safe?”.

I think the DIY bioengineering community has a lot that they could contribute to synthetic biology and the world in general.  But the safety risks and public perception issues can’t be ignored.  Personally, I’d love to see the community coalesce around a DIYbioengineering model organism.  For example, some of the recent suggestions on the email list have been

  1. Acinetobacter – a naturally competent BL1 organism
  2. Moss – again it’s readily transformable and it’s moss!  How cool is that!?!
  3. Halobacterium – this organism is native to the Great Salt Lake and only grows in media with high salt concentration.  This feature has the double bonus of both making media contamination by other organisms unlikely and ensuring that Halobacterium is less likely to grow elsewhere.

DIY bioengineers have different constraints than conventional molecular biologists.  By choosing a new model organism more suitable for their work, DIY bioengineers can both to break new ground in science and engineering and develop the foundational tools needed for DIY bioengineering to really take off.

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