Most of us here at Rockefeller and the Tri-Institutions community, who work in science in one form or another, do so because we love science. Sometimes we are curious about other aspects of science outside of the specific area in which we work. Sometimes we want to talk to friends about exciting areas of research, but it can be hard to explain it to them. Or we may have ideas for an experiment or project, but don’t necessarily have the means in our own labs to carry them out. All of these desires can be fulfilled in a community biolab.
What exactly is a community biolab? There doesn’t seem to be an official definition, but it is a growing trend. There are at least a dozen such organizations in the United States, and interest seems to be growing. In broad terms, community biolabs are non-profit organizations that provide lab space, equipment, supplies and training to anyone curious about any aspect of biology. They try to support citizen science and science literacy through this access, and have classes and other types of events geared toward the public. While they do take donations of all kinds, they survive through membership and class fees, so they are dependent on a critical mass of members to survive. As a way to obtain equipment, a community lab in California called LA Biohackers found some old thermal cyclers and a DNA sequencer in the dumpster of University of California, Santa Cruz.
There is a community biolab right in New York, in Brooklyn, called Genspace. It was founded by life scientists who wanted to improve the public’s science literacy and support citizen science. They do this through classes, talks and events for the public, and as incubator space for startups, or those who are just curious.
Ellen Jorgensen was a scientist working in the pharmaceutical industry when she came up with the idea for Genspace. She was working at a biotechnology company when she saw an article about DIY spaces. At that point, most of these types of organizations were geared toward the computer and electronics industry, but there was growing interest in biolabs. She started lurking on the Google Group mentioned in the article and saw that there was a lot of interest in such a lab in the city, but not much actually happening. In 2009, she sent a message to the group proposing to meet at a coffee shop near the Beacon Theater. Four other people showed up: reporter Daniel Grushkin, artist Nurit Bar Shar, and two Columbia college students. The students were there because they were interested in the iGem competition, but there was no support available from the school. iGem is a synthetic biology competition where participants are given components such as promoters, terminators, reporter elements, and plasmids, and challenged to create a new system within a cell. Bar Shar had learned how to grow cell cultures in fractal patterns and was interested in continuing that work. They started meeting in the Grushkin’s living room, where they would lay a plastic sheet on the kitchen table and Jorgensen would provide equipment, such as a gel apparatus from her job. In this makeshift lab, Jorgensen says she was impressed with the reactions of others and began to “appreciate the privilege to work with the tools of science.” However, working in the apartment, they realized that they couldn’t store any of their work or forge any long-term projects. Then they heard about the Metropolitan Exchange Building at 33 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The building’s owner was very passionate about using the space for promoting science. The building also housed an architecture firm, Terraform One, that was playing with the idea of constructing buildings from living materials. This concept failed to eventuate, so the architecture firm gave the space to Genspace in 2010, even building a biosafety level 1 lab enclosure for them. At this point Genspace became a non-profit, starting the lab with equipment donated from Jorgensen’s old company.
Genspace offers several different types of events. There was the art exhibit, Stranger Visions, where an artist took chewed gum, cigarette butts, and hairs found on the streets of the city, used them to sequence the DNA of these individuals, and from that created busts based on how these people might look. It was meant to be a statement on biological surveillance and how genetics determine how we look. The artist did all this work at Genspace. There are adult classes, such as how to make paper and textiles from bacteria, how to make paint from glowing microbes, and also the occasional book signing. In the past, they have offered classes in basic molecular biology techniques and one on the new gene editing method, CRISPR, which has recently received a lot of press. There will be a lecture by Chris Mason of Cornell University on designing genomes. The BioRocket Internship is an after school and summer program for New York City public high school students, giving them a chance to obtain lab experience.
Membership costs $100 a month to have access to the lab, and is open to anyone, following an initial safety class. It can be used as a space for scientists to do their own thing. For example, a company called Opentron actually started at Genspace, by a group from New York University that found pipetting repetitive—as bench scientists can attest to. They developed an automated pipettor with intricate software that costs less than $5,000, and formed a company that is now comprised of about twenty employees in the U.S. and China. Membership at Genspace is also “good for proof of concept work,” Jorgensen notes. Genspace has been hosting iGem teams over the years as well.
Recently, Genspace has given rise to an even more wonderful organization, Biotech Without Borders. While Genspace continues to focus on the intersection between science and art, Biotech Without Borders focuses more on opportunities for hands-on science. The mission of Biotech Without Borders is to help improve the public’s understanding of biology and DNA technology as a way to encourage democratizing science, provide space for a curious public, and maybe to eventually help bring biotechnology to developing countries. There are periodic lectures and classes on such topics as biotechnology, synthetic biology, and techniques, that are very reasonably priced. They have a recurring free event called PCR and Pizza, where one can bring some organic material that they were curious about, and have it sequenced, or you can sequence a piece of your own DNA, or just engage in conversation about science. There are plans to start a program called Hack the Helix. Intended for city public high school teachers, the program will provide an affordable opportunity to learn biotechniques to present to their classes. There will also be a program for high school students. Biotech Without Borders plans to collaborate with Know Science on some events.