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specific organisation and general concept

The Project

"DIYbio is an organization for the ever expanding community of citizen scientists and DIY biological engineers that value openness & responsibility. DIYbio aims to be an "Institution for the Amateur" -- an umbrella organization that provides some of the same resources afforded by more traditional institutions like academia and industry, such as access to a community of experts, to technical literature and other resources, to responsible oversight for health and safety, and an interface between the community and the public at large." (

From an interview with Mac Cowell, cofounder of DIYbio:

"What exactly is DIYBio?

DIYbio is a group of people who are interested in doing amateur biotechnology. Amateur, meaning doing something that you love for the sake of doing it. In a broad sense, we’re developing an infrastructure that enables people not in traditional institutions to take advantage of the tools that those institutions typically provide.

Why did you start DIYbio instead of pursuing a PhD or collaborating with an established lab?

I really fell in love with the general idea that biology can be engineered. But I was disappointed with the huge barrier of entry for average people, or for anyone who wants to get involved but is not already in a PhD program. The open-source computer-programming movement became ubiquitous, and computers became a platform that enabled a huge amateur or hobbyist culture of people to push the field further. Many people got organized and started working on projects collaboratively. So why can’t we do that with biology? Why does all biology happen in academic or industrial labs? What’s the barrier to entry for doing something interesting in biology? It’s a four- to seven-year PhD program. There must be another opportunity.

What do amateurs bring to the table that trained scientists don’t?

That’s a great question. The number one thing is a “cross-pollination” of expertise. We are trying to develop the tools that enable people, who might be experts in other areas, to do biology as a hobby in their spare time, bringing some of that expertise to the lab. That way, there is a lot of potential for innovation. For instance, one of the projects that we are working on right now is an “augmented reality benchtop.” There has been a lot of work in the last 10 or 20 years on things like multitouch, big-screen tabletops. What if we made a benchtop for a lab that could recognize the stuff on top of it, walk you through a protocol visually, or connect you to a microscope on the surface of that lab bench and show you what it sees? So that you’re not just scribbling in a lab notebook, you’re actually recording at an equal or better granularity what you’re doing. Another example of where advancements in other fields could apply to biology is pipetting. During experiments, you pipette over and over again, hundreds or thousands of times a day. Every once in a while you might zone out and think, “Oh, my God. Did I just pipette that two times in a row? Five times? I don’t even remember.” Why don’t we just install a little wireless data logger into a pipette that keeps track of how much and every time you press a button? Some of the people we’re collaborating with are installing little wireless data loggers into pipettes that keep track of how many times you press the pipette button. And it only costs $40. Why aren’t all pipettes like that?

Is a crowd-sourced approach especially well suited to synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology aims to make biology easier to engineer by adopting basic engineering principles: modular parts, standardization, abstraction, standard units. And as these practices become more developed, the opportunity for people to do biology on their own increases. As the system of weights and measures is realized, the less you have to be a vertical expert, or a specialist. Furthermore, a crowd-sourced network of hobbyists might help measure and characterize the needed toolbox of thousands of biological parts in the first place. Hobbyists don’t have the same set of goals as PhDs. Measuring things is not very sexy, meaning you probably couldn’t write a paper about it. Many synthetic biologists are having trouble getting papers about different measurement standards published because it doesn’t clearly advance the scientific agenda. Maybe it could be construed as scientific progress, but really, it’s about engineering progress. There’s a lag between what needs to happen to make synthetic biology more of a reality in certain ways. There’s a lot of science that had to happen to make synthetic biology possible. But there’s also a lot of grunt work — measuring, trying different combinations, characterizing — that I think a lot of traditional scientists aren’t necessarily going to do. Scientists who are trying to write their thesis or publish a paper in Nature might not have as much compulsion to perform that initial grunt work.

Does amateur science affect the peer-review process?

Right now that function is being provided mostly by the mainstream publishing industry, which is now a couple hundred years old. These publications have become academic currency. If you want to get tenure, you need the pedigree of having been published in prestigious journals. Until we can find alternative ways of crediting good work, we’re going to be stuck with the existing publishing system. The current way to have a scientific conversation is to take six months to two years to publish a paper, and the paper is the end product of research that’s taken six months, maybe many years. All of that data is stored in lab notebooks. And maybe only the best analysis of that data gets published as an auxiliary file on a publisher’s website, even though useful experimental data was generated much earlier. As we develop tools that make it easier for scientists to capture the process of actually doing research, I think that will enable a faster scientific conversation than the current six-month to two-year process. Software platforms that make it easier for scientists to capture, on the fly, what they are doing at a granular level — that’s what the scientific dialogue is all about.

How do you respond to critics who claim that you’re potentially putting dangerous biological materials in the wrong hands? Or, to use the computer-programming analogy, are you aiding the development of viruses in a very literal sense?

All the hazardous sequences are available publicly from GenBank, etc.: Ebola, H5N1, the 1918 plague; they’re all there. DIYbio won’t change that. We’re looking to mostly focus on doing wet lab work in a very public, transparent group setting. So that if anyone — a neighbor, a governmental agent, a journalist — wants to know what is going on, it’s evident what we are working on. Forming that community is the first defense so that the 99.9999 percent of the group who are positive will stop the .0001 percent of the group that’s negative. Today, at the ground floor, I think it’s best if we blaze a path forward in a very public and open way. A small minority may have unleashed computer viruses over the years, but it’s the computer hacking community at large who created many of the solutions that safeguard us from them." (

The Concept

From the Wikipedia:

"Do it yourself biology (DIY biology, DIY bio) is a growing movement in which individuals, communities, and small organizations, study biology and life science using the same methods as traditional research institutions. DIY biology is primarily undertaken by individuals with extensive research training from academia or corporations, who then mentor and oversee other DIY biologists with no formal training. This may be done as a hobby, sometimes called biohacking, as a not-for-profit endeavor for community learning and open-science innovation, or for profit, to start a business." (


More than just Citizen Science: DIYBio represents Citizen Biotech Economies

Morgan Meyer:

"do-it-yourself biology does not only represent an instance of “citizen science” (on this notion see Irwin, 1995), but that it also points to another issue: the formation of what we could call citizen economies of scientific equipment, or “citizen biotech-economies”. (I use the word economy in an open sense here, since in many cases we actually observe non-market economies at work; economies that, interestingly enough, also bring us back to the original meaning of the word economics, namely “managing a household”). In order to set up a laboratory in a garage, people depend on a multitude of objects, networks, and people. They heavily depend on other people interested in do-it-yourself biology, they rely on scientific institutions (even if indirectly), they rely on the sharing of information, on the circulation of objects, on Internet platforms, on emails, on donations, etc. In short, people who want to practice do-it-yourself biology need to tap into these emerging and open collectives of people, ideas and objects that are currently materialising around the notions of garage biology, DIY biology, biohacking, etc.2

These citizen biotech-economies are to be open, collective, distributed, and accessible. Their openness manifests itself in at least three ways.3 First, we observe an openness in terms of peoples’ material access to knowledge, to affordable objects, to infrastructures. Second, this openness is also socio-political: the networks, associations, laboratories and equipments dedicated to do-it-yourself biology are also imagined and presented in more general terms as means to democratise science and to engage and provide an access to biology to various kinds of people, each with their own background, motivation, and interests. Third, these economies are portrayed as an alternative, and sometimes even as opposed to, other, more “closed” economies (i.e. big business).4 These citizen biotech-economies thus come to stand for three things at once: a material re-distribution, a democratisation, and an alternative to established, technoscience." (

DIYbio versus synthetic biology

"The media attention surrounding DIYbio has served to brand the endeavor just as synthetic biology was branded. Both embrace the goals of making biology 'easy to engineer' and ensuring materials and know-how circulate in an 'open source' mode—“biology for the people” as the platitude has it. The association is not surprising or accidental. DIYbio and synthetic biology, after all, share institutional and personal connections. Leading research institutions, such as the National Science Foundation–funded Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, of which three of us (P.R., G.B. and A.S.) are a part, have made these two goals central to their strategic plans. Additionally, leading figures in synthetic biology have informally served as impresarios to some in the biohacker movement, notably through their sponsorship and promotion of the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, which in 2009 has drawn over 100 teams of undergraduate bioengineers from five continents. In the light of the growth of DIYbio and the publicity that it has generated and received, however, the directors of the iGEM competition have banned DIYbio teams from participating in the competition.

The connections and convergences can no doubt be overstated. Self-definitions vary, and not all synthetic biologists would define their field as fostering “mechanisms for amateurs to increase their knowledge and skills,” as a prominent DIYbio website ( puts it. Conversely, not all DIY biologists design “new biological parts, devices, and systems,” as synthetic biology has sometimes been defined ( Nevertheless, it's certainly fair to say that accessible, easy-to-engineer biology is becoming the proverbial name of the game. Those synthetic biologists and DIYbio practitioners who object to being grouped together need to speak up in their own name.

The good news is that open access biology, to the extent that it works, may help actualize the long-promised biotechnical future: growth of green industry, production of cheaper drugs, development of new biofuels and the like. The bad news, however, is that making biological engineering easier and available to many more players also makes it less predictable, raising the specter of unknown dangers." (

The issue of scientific equipment

"a key issue for do-it-yourself biology: the cost and procurement of scientific equipment. Purchasing scientific equipment was, at least until very recently, expensive, difficult, uncommon, or just impossible. However, there are now various ways through which people can get hold of cheap scientific equipment. Do-it-yourself biologists might steal, buy used equipment, or use other people’s university address to get material shipped (Delfanti, 2010: 117). The paths through which the costs of setting up a laboratory at home (or a community lab) are becoming more affordable include: buying used equipment, transforming equipment, or finding alternatives to equipment.

Examples of alternative and transformed equipment that frequently feature on websites, blogs, videos, or articles devoted to garage and do-it-yourself biology include: the conversion of webcams into microscopes; the Open PCR and the LavaAmp (as alternatives to PCR machines); the Open Gel Box to do gel electrophoresis; incubating test tubes in one’s own armpits instead of using a conventional incubator; purifying DNA with a mix of non-iodized table salt, meat tenderizer, and shampoo; or using the DremelFuge instead of a centrifuge.

The DremelFuge, for example, was created in 2009 by Cathal Garvey in Ireland. This device can be used as a substitute to a conventional centrifuge. The idea is to put an adapter on a power drill or any other rotary tool in order to spin test tubes. Through this device, the costs for centrifuging are decreased from 500 to around 55 dollars. Garvey advertises his invention as follows: “A centrifuge attachment for drills or rotary tools which spins them with even more power than the official thing, and costs a tiny fraction of the price to make and operate”. On a video posted on YouTube1, instructions for how to use the device are given: we see Cathal Garvey explaining the device, showing how it works, how to put tubes into the device, with what speed of rotation it works, and giving some precautionary notes, etc. The DremelFuge has some key advantages for do-it-yourself biologists: it is rather cheap, easy to use, small and combinable with a tool found in many households, a power drill. In other words, it is a relatively mobile object. (This transportability of tools and materials helps to explain why some scientific fields are more open to amateurs than others (see Meyer, 2008)). Another example is the Open Gel Box, which is delivered as a package including documents (assembly instructions and usage protocols), wires and other pieces, which people can assemble at home (like IKEA furniture) and then use or even improve.

Do-it-yourself biologists can buy these artefacts either via the websites of producers or, in the case of used equipment, via eBay, Amazon, or Craiglist. For these and other kinds of equipment (i.e. the DremelFuge), there are video instructions to build and use them on sites such as YouTube or Vimeo. And, on many blogs and websites dedicated to do-it-yourself biology, there is information about where and how to purchase, get for free, build, or transform equipment. The Internet plays in fact an important role for do-it-yourself biologists: it allows and encourages people to “freely reveal” (see von Hippel, 2005: 77-91) their innovations; it provides platforms through which used equipment can be sold and bought, ways for people to share instructions and information for how to find and build alternative tools, and, more generally, a medium to connect people interested in do-it-yourself biology. In fact, the Internet is part and parcel of the emerging, alternative, and multifarious economy of scientific equipment that sustains do-it-yourself biology.

Another way for people to learn how to use equipment is, of course, through workshops. An example here is the SymbioticA Biotech Art Workshop, a series of workshops organised at the University of Western Australia. Workshop participants are taught, for instance, alternative methods for biotechnical experiments, i.e. for DNA extraction, for the preparation of culture media, for building a sterile laminar flow hood out of home construction material (Catts and Cass, 2008: 150; da Costa, 2008: 373). The Biotech Hobbyist is yet another example of a forum (a magazine in this case) that offers “step-by-step instructions and advice on how to obtain the necessary materials”, distributes its own kits, and calls for people to build laboratories at home (da Costa, 2008: 373, 376).

We see that do-it-yourself biology is not only dependent on scientific equipment becoming cheaper and more available, the mutability of objects is also crucially important. Do-it-yourself biology favours so-called “creative workarounds” (Ledford, 2010) that is, inventive ways to work without conventional and expensive scientific material. This article has revealed two kinds of creative workarounds. First, people use creative workarounds around objects when they transform and combine them and use them in unusual ways. And, on the other hand, they use creative workarounds around institutions, when they try to circumvent established industry-university business linkages (i.e. via donations, stealing, or using university addresses)." (

More Information

  1. Biohacking
  2. Blog at
  3. profile of the movement,
  4. diybio in the news, updated biblio of news articles:
  5. DIYBio Community Laboratories


  • Delgado, A. (2013), DIYbio: Making things and making futures, in Futures, Vol. 48: 65–73.
  • Kera, D. (2012), Hackerspaces and DIYbio in Asia: connecting science and community with open data, kits and protocols, in Journal of Peer Production, vol. 2.
  • Meyer, M. (2013), Domesticating and democratizing science: a Geography of Do-It-Yourself Biology, Working Paper 13-MS-04, Inderdisciplinary Institute for Innovation, Mines Paris Tech.