First DIYBio rant of the year

I can’t believe I’m uploading the first post of the year in March. Still, better late than never to show people that I’m still alive and kicking. While I haven’t been able to think about personal writing due to deluge of job and school related stuff I’ll try to keep things more organized in the coming months. If half of what I hope comes true this coming year will be the most awesome so far, for myself and for other activities and organizations I believe in.

This post is, like it says in the title, a rant post of what DIYBio ought to be and how I plan to do my part this year. It’s also written on my blackberry which I later copy-pasted into the wordpress… I just hope half a year of writing boring technical stuff didn’t burn out creative writing part of my brain. I’ll be using it a lot from now on.

Year 2009 was series of exciting experiences, with ISFF, DIYBio and iGEM jamboree. I’m trying to pan it out into this year without losing momentum, through activities like synthetic biology crash course for beginners, various internships and private research projects. Hopefully I’ll have more time to write about them in the coming months.

I’ve been thinking a lot on diybio, about what it’s supposed to be & what it needs, and I think I’ve arrived at some sort of conclusion.

DIYBio must inevitably find the way to bridge the gap between the enthusiastic members of the public and tools and devices that makes synthetic biology feasible. While there are many members out there who seem to work toward specific gadgets and other physical tools of biological experiment, I think we still need something more.

DIY or not, biology is a science. If we want to bring hard science to the public with aid of ever cheapening yet sophisticated lab equipments we need to look beyond the hardware.

I’ve written quite a few times about Alan Kay (on this blog and elsewhere), the pioneer of modern computer programming/interface paradigm and his relationship with synthetic biology… There are mountains of information on him and his works that are relevant to the discussion of models in biology and how they might be used to organize information, with emphasis on education as a sort of interface between data and human mind… All of which are beyond the scope of this particular post.

The important point is this. I believe true potential for diybio is to bridge the gap between the complexity of bleeding edge science with the innate human ability to learn and tinker. And the main tool in making it happen is idea, not low cost lab tools (the costs of the lab tools are coming down anyway. Why DIY every single appliance when you can buy a used one that works just as good, oftentimes even better?). While low cost lab implementations are important, the true future lies with the ability to abstract and package/rebuild complexity into something much more manageable.

Some people seem to have difficulty understanding what I’m trying to say from the few times I’ve tried to talk about… I’m talking about reviving and revising the notion of knowledge engineering, something that was supposed to be the corner stone of true computer revolution that never really took off (google and wikipedia are some remnants of the original idea).

Synthetic biology is a good example of what knowledge engineering coupled with physical science might be able to achieve. None of the specific pieces forming what we perceive as synthetic biology are new. They’ve been around for quite a while in one form or another following course of gradual improvement rather than truly new scientific advance.
Synthetic biology at heart is about how dedicated professionals can organize scattered pieces of knowledge into something that can potentially allow ambitious undergraduate students to undertake projects that would have been beyond their ability a decade ago. Never mind the actual success rate of their projects for now. They very fact that those students are able to plan for the future with much broader sphere of possibility is significant enough.
And why stop with undergraduates? Wouldn’t it be possible to have motivated high school students design something that at least works on paper? Wouldn’t it be possible to build a conceptual framework so that those kids can at least discuss possibilities of future projects on back of a napkin without resorting to sci fi?

If diybio is to do what it originally set out to do, we need to look beyond gadgets and tools. We need to think about ideas and how they come together… We need to make biology easier, not just cheaper. This is the mantra that will drive my DIYBio related activities this year.

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One thought on “First DIYBio rant of the year

  1. You’re right. I don’t like to discourage people who are actually doing something when I’m not; but it’s a waste of time and energy for people to try to build incubators or centrifuges or thermal cyclers at home. Just spend $200 and buy one on ebay. If you can’t cough up a few thousand dollars for equipment, you can’t afford to buy reagents anyway. DIYbio isn’t going to be cheap, not for a long time. That’s not a fatal flaw. Golf, ham radio operating, riding horses, and restoring automobiles are all expensive but popular hobbies.

    Some people want to invent new improved machines, and that’s fine; but it’s only an instrumental goal. And it’s one that big companies can do better. All the DIYers have to do is prove they’re a market.

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