Starting a DIYbio Laboratory? Find a Makerspace

June 12, 2015 -- BIT Magazine DIYbio is basically regular people using the tools and techniques of biology to pursue projects of their own design for their own benefit. It can be anything from simply trying to gain a better understanding of the world around them, or to monitor the environment for threats and contaminants in their food and water. It can also be in pursuit of more fantastic goals such as ending the battle against cancer in our favor.

Concept of a simple open source laboratory tube rack system being developed in Thailand by a local makerspace for nearby university. 

Whatever your end may be, obtaining the means of DIYbio can become a pursuit all in its own. Currently, laboratory equipment is produced and distributed by a handful of companies around the world for a premium. A reflection of basic supply and demand and considering most of the corporations and institutions using this equipment have more than ample funding to afford it whatever the price, this current reality serves as a monumental barrier to regular people seeking to contribute to the study and practical application of biology.

If ever you get a chance to open up any of this premium lab equipment and take a peek inside, you will see that while it is clever, well engineered, and reliable, it is often merely a collection of microcontrollers, servos, steppers, heating elements, and other common components that are the mainstay of your average makerspace.

It is no surprise then that many DIYbio labs are often either corners within an existing makerspace, or got their start in a makerspace before expanding and finally moving out on their own. That is not to say a group of DIYbiologists couldn't pool their resources and procure a space and the equipment to fill it on their own, but it is to say that at a makerspace you have the tools at hand to create many of the open source options already developed and available, as well as develop novel alternatives to existing equipment you need but cannot otherwise afford.

Everything from PCR (polymerase chain reaction) thermocyclers which use cycles of heating and cooling to break apart and recombine DNA fragments, to centrifuges and tube racks have been created in makerspaces or by DIYbio labs. Even laboratory robots bear a striking resemblance to the 3D printers you will find at a makerspace. Many of a makerspace's printers have been assembled and maintained by members and staff, so the knowledge to fork the design toward biology is entirely within the realm of possibility.

King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in Thailand is one of the few places in Thailand DIYbio and synthetic biology is being pursued. Maker Zoo, a Bangkok-based makerspace, has decided to help produce simple laboratory equipment as an initial means of building ties between makers and biologist.
Software and applications are another necessity in the increasingly data driven world of biological study. Again, a makerspace or hackerspace already possesses talented programmers and developers who may be willing to help create the software you need to get your hardware and experiments on the right track.

To create a new paradigm, you need the right infrastructure underpinning it. For DIYbio, that requires interdisciplinary talent and the tools to create and modify the equipment most DIYbio enthusiasts will have on hand.

In Thailand where BIT Magazine is based, DIYbio has been almost unheard of. But with the recent emergence of makerspaces in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it was inevitable that DIYbio projects would begin to emerge as well. At Maker Zoo Bangkok, a makerspace that specializes in product development, education, and community projects, the tools needed to create laboratory equipment not only exist, but have already begun being tested for this very purpose.

Laboratory tube racks, as simple as they may be, have specific dimensions and requirements. Each laboratory uses these racks differently and have preferences traditional biology equipment suppliers may not address. At Maker Zoo however, with a single consultation with a local university, these features have been added into a rack system that costs a fraction of what a similar customized piece of equipment would go for from traditional suppliers, if such customization was even possible.

The racks are already available on MakerBot's Thingiverse online 3D library where users freely share their designs for others to modify and print. This means that the next generation of open source laboratory equipment emerging from makerspaces will be readily available to everyone else on the planet with an Internet connection and a 3D printer. The ability to design and share a tube rack in Bangkok, Thailand, and have it printed out 4 hours later in London, England, with another iteration able to follow just as quickly, not only shortens the supply chain to nothing, but slashes the barriers in time, money, and resources erected by traditional R&D.

The ability to have London lab technicians try out your design and provide valuable feedback translated into another series of iteration within the time frame of days or a week was not possible before the advent of 3D printing and the makerspaces using them to design and develop ideas.

So if you are thinking about getting involved in DIYbio, your first trip might actually be best spent visiting a makerspace. What you learn there can serve as the foundation for what must come next.

BIT Magazine is a tech magazine "for the rest of us." Follow us on Twitter here or on Facebook here.
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