MadLab’s Jo Slack delves into the world of DIY Bio and questions Noah Most, our resident DIY Biologist, about his DIY Bio trip around the world.
Jo joined MadLab in November after a stint working in London. She’s involved with the Marketing and Copywriting at MadLab and helps run the Courses programme.
Before I came to work at MadLab I’d not heard much about DIY Bio, in fact I knew very little about it at all. I come from a Creative Writing background and the closest I’ve gotten to Biological experiments since leaving High School is the various mould-growing exploits that went on in my eight-student Uni house.
Though I may not be an expert on all the stuff that goes on here, the thing that most attracts me about MadLab is the diversity. The vast wealth of activities taking place at any one moment satisfies my inquisitive nature. In one week, we’ll be hosting Taxidermy courses, running coding sessions and teaching children how to create circuits through electric paint. When I heard that we were getting a resident DIY Biologist, and not just any old DIY Biologist, but one that led a microfinance non-profit that was hailed as a ‘Champion of Change’ by Barack Obama, I was eager to find out more.
Noah Most hails from Iowa, the ‘Heartland’ of the US. When he arrived, he quickly excused his generic American accent by letting us know that he really does come from bang slap in the middle of the States. In fact, it’s so central (and thus middle-of-the road accent-wise) that it is actually known for being the place where Newsreaders move to in order to neutralise theirs. Noah studied Biology at Grinnell College, a University just outside of his hometown. I asked him where else he’d been in the US and he admitted he hadn’t really travelled around much. Quite surprising when you hear about what brought him to the UK — a year-long round the world DIY Bio trip funded by the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, in which he’ll visit various DIY Bio spaces across numerous continents.
MadLab’s strand of DIY Bio is one element that sits in between numerous other projects. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have it’s own voice. Since it was set up by MadLab Director Asa Calow in 2012, with the help of MMU and funding from the Wellcome Trust, the DIY Bio strand at MadLab has seen people making fuel cells from car park soil, swabbing bus stops to identify the dirtiest parts of Manchester and DNA barcoding sushi. To top it off, MadLab were invited to San Francisco (by the FBI no less) to take part in a nationwide Bio conference, helping official bodies keep up with what is going on in the DIY Bio world. When we were approached by Noah and learnt about his Bio activities we were quick to say a big hearty yes to his visit request, and get him on board.
Noah has already visited a few DIY Bio projects having started at a Canadian maker-space in Victoria where he worked on DIY origami. His next stop will be India before travelling on to Indonesia. I asked him what the best thing he’d done so far Bio-wise was:
The best thing that I’ve gotten to do was explore whether DNA nanotechnology is something that’s feasible for do-it-yourself biologists. As a proof of concept, I made a 2D lightbulb that was less than 1/1000th the width of a human hair…out of DNA! Not too long ago it would have been crazy to think that you could build an object by using DNA as a construction material, let alone do so in a biohackerspace. This same technology has been used to create nano-robots for delivering drugs to cancer cells and not healthy cells.
Proof that DIY Bio isn’t just something for people wanting to play scientist. The whole concept of DIY Bio only really came into play in 2008 and the advances DIY Biologists have achieved since are quite astonishing. No wonder we got under the FBI’s skin!
Noah will be working with us on a number of projects for the next few weeks. He has a dedicated lab space on the bottom floor where you’ll usually find him plastic gloves on and pipette in hand. He has already been involved with a project that took place at Longsight Library, teaching women and girls how to extract DNA from strawberries, create yeast balloons and make ricotta cheese from milk and lemon. On Saturday Asa and Noah will host a ‘Mystery Meat’ workshop, encouraging participants to identify meat in ready meals using the techniques of PCR and Gel Electrophores.
Having been here for a few weeks I was curious to find out what Manchester is like for a Central American on first impression. Apart from being disappointed by the lack of resemblance to Downtown Abbey (apparently Noah’s standard for everything British) he says he loves the mix of old and new in the architecture and is just about beginning to understand our lingo. When asked what he misses most about home he admits it’s probably his dog, though his family and friends are a close second. He’s not sure what’s next after this spectacular adventure but he says it’ll be hard not to set up a lab in his Kitchen, something that we fully encourage here at MadLab.
You can catch Noah this Saturday at MadLab for the Mystery Meat Workshop. You don’t need any biology chops to participate, just a bit of curiosity. Tickets are £8 and can be purchased here.