A version of this post was originally published in the Guardian on June 18th
At MadLab we’re used to unusual requests. We run a 3,000 square foot community space for science, technology and art in the centre of Manchester, and as a consequence organise and play host to a wide variety of events – from “hacking” toy robots to play football to making kimchi or dissecting octopuses (and eating them). But back in May we received one of our most unexpected queries yet:
I wanted to reach out to everyone to invite you to an upcoming workshop being put on by the FBI. Please join us for the workshop, June 12-14, 2012 in California.
Wow! So first of all, a bit of background: one of our projects is called DIYBioMCR, a do-it-yourself biology (DIYBio) group originally set up in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University and supported by the Wellcome Trust. It’s been a great success, and we’ve introduced hundreds of people to biology over the past year through making fuel cells (powered by the bacteria in soil taken from NCP car parks), breeding snails and swabbing bus stops to count the number of bacterial colonies that grow there.
More recently, we’ve been building our own lab equipment and running experiments that would typically be done in an academic or commercial environment, like DNA barcoding sushi (to check what you’re eating is actually yellow-fin tuna).
So why the invite? What could the FBI possibly learn from a community space in Manchester? Here’s Special Agent Nathaniel Head to explain:
It’s the FBI’s goal to work with the amateur biology community to safeguard science and those working in the field.
In non-FBI speak, they know they missed a trick (or several) prior to 9/11 by not being outward-looking enough. They’re making an effort with the DIYbio community in order to understand – and keep up with – this fast-changing field. They’ve been talking to US-based biologists for the last few years, and this year, they’ve extended those talks to include groups from France (La Paillaisse), Denmark (BiologiGaragen), Singapore, Germany, the Czech Republic and Canada.
Hard at work at BioCurious. Whatever the FBI is learning, MadLab has the swift snap mastered. Photograph: Rachael Turner
Which brings us to sunny San Francisco. For the past three days we’ve sat through presentations and panel sessions involving FBI agents and 60 or so of the most prominent members of the growing DIYbio movement from across the US, Europe and Asia. It’s a diverse audience – scientists, artists, designers, journalists, activists and academics are all represented and the breadth of activity has been incredible. We’ve seen presentations on collecting biological samples from the Arctic Circle, converting street food carts in Singapore into mobile public laboratories, experimental aquaculture in Indonesia, playing Pacman with bacteria and printing DNA with a modified inkjet printer.
Amidst the frivolity, there are no illusions as to why we’re all here. When you see the words “amateur”, “open” and “biotechnology” in the same sentence, a not untypical initial reaction might be one of shock and concern, followed shortly by a host of imagined possible nightmare scenarios. For our part, MadLab’s been featured in a couple of BBC programmes that flit from smallpox to amateur biology (the so-called terror/ error debate) in a matter of seconds, inferring that a “bunch of kids in a garage” can accidentally bring down humanity with equipment bought on eBay.
On the final day we head into Silicon Valley for a hands-on session doing something that only a few years ago would have seemed inconceivable…
In the middle of an unassuming technology park in Sunnyvale, a couple of blocks away from NASA HQ, sits the US’s largest community biotechnology lab BioCurious. A world away from your typical commercial or academic lab, it’s closer in feel to a makerspace or hackerspace with benches made of scaffolding and a fridge full of beer – although the biological-equation graffiti in the toilets reminds you that this space is a bit different. Anyone can sign up to become a member and sharing knowledge of what you’re doing (and how) is positively encouraged. In fact, they’ve taken transparency to such an extent that all the storage boxes they use are see-through.
Rather than buying the latest and most expensive kit, BioCurious reuse and remake old equipment (typically donated or bought at auction) to fit their needs. As co-founder Raymond McCauley explains, “we needed a refrigerated centrifuge, so rather than buying one, we just put ours in the fridge. Obvious right?” Raymond and fellow BioCuriouser Derek Jacoby guided us through some taster lab activities. After an introduction to basic lab safety our group – a mix of FBI special agents and DIY Biologists got to work on the “hello world” of modern biology – genetically modifying e.coli to glow green. Did it work? We’ll find out when the photos come through (glowing e.coli does not go down well at UK Customs, unfortunately).