UTS Science in Focus – Biohacking: Why should we care?

Ellen: I went through a very traditional scientific education I went to university, I got a PhD, I worked in industry and a little bit in academia, but sometime around 2009, my life took a very strange turn, and I find myself where I am today

People a lot smarter than I have, than I am, have been talking about how this age is going to be the age of biology, and an age where biology and technology meet There were some people hanging around the Boston area around 2008 that had this idea that maybe biology could be done by the average person, that there could be a democratisation of the practice of biotechnology, and that this would result in more people understanding biotechnology and a greater public understanding would benefit everyone They called themselves DIY Bio, and I was sitting at my desk one day at work reading a News of the Weird column in my local newspaper, and I saw these people that were trying to make glowing green yoghurt and had labs in their closets, and at the time, America had just gone through eight years of a president who seemed not to believe in global warming or evolution, and that was very scary for the scientific community And I looked at this and thought well, this is kind of weird and edgy, but these are people that are so interested in what I do for a living that they actually want to do it as a hobby, and something like that should be nurtured and supported, not supressed So I started lurking on this Google group that they had created called DIY Bio, and I saw people in various parts of the country and the world saying ‘Oh, let’s see if we can start a little group in our area’ and I watched groups in New York kind of start to get going and then sort of peter out, and then finally I decided alright, let’s see what happens

And it’s one of those things that you do and you don’t know at the time it’s kind of a turning point in your life, so I typed in ‘Anyone who wants to start a DIY Bio group in New York City, let’s all meet at this coffee shop near the Beacon Theatre at 7 o’clock’ And three people showed up – one was a reporter, a trend which has continued to this very day, but the other two were students who couldn’t get their university to give them any space to do projects that they wanted to do – things that they had thought up And science funding was so tight that professors couldn’t really afford to spend a lot of time training people that weren’t going to work on whatever it was they were doing to get their grant money So I felt really bad – my parents were artists, and when I tried to get a lab internship, I had the same problem I was knocking on doors and begging people to take me in

And there’s never enough lab space for kids to do internships So that was one thing that made me feel there really should be a space like this in New York So we started meeting and there were several factors going on at that point in time – the maker movement, maker fair, Make Magazine People were coming together and forming these electronic maker spaces, places that would have, say, a 3D printer and a laser cutter and a bunch of soldering irons, and people would come together and do programming and electronics and teach classes and share all the equipment We also had the rise of something called synthetic biology, which was a bunch of people in the engineering department, MIT and Harvard, started turning their attention towards programming life instead of just programming computers, and they hit upon this system for a series of standard – a system to standardise and have specifications for pieces of DNA, so that you could kind of use them like Lego blocks and have compatible ends, so you could do sort of modular building of genetic circuits rather than the sorts of things that I grew up with, which is that you would kind of put something together and test it, and if it didn’t work, you would do another iteration

In this case, if you standardise things and you automate it, you can do high throughput synthesis of DNA So this attempt to make biology more accessible to engineers had the unintended consequence of making it more accessible to the general public The third factor was there was a whole bunch of companies that went out of business in 2008 in the United States and dumped their equipment on eBay, so you could get a cheap PCR machine, and the synthesis of DNA and the sequencing of DNA was getting cheaper and more accessible So around now you can get an average sized bacterial gene synthesised for around $99 in the United States So we started out meeting in the reporter’s kitchen, and we would do some really – anyone who’s in the field will recognise, we were doing electrophoresis here, which is just a way of analysing DNA, so no live organisms, no scary stuff, but what was amazing was how the general public, when we would announce that we were having an event, like pizza and beer and electrophoresis, they would show up and they would be taking pictures and watching the DNA move in the [inaudible] and getting really, really excited, and this is something that people in molecular biology do every day, and it’s really kind of very boring to them

And it was really kind of cool to think well yeah, I actually do something that is really cool The fact that you’re watching DNA move in an electric field with your eyes is really, really cool So I started to get excited about the idea of transmitting the love that I felt for my profession directly to the general public through these hands-on events At the time, unfortunately, a lot of the press was being very negative about this movement I particularly like the word ‘Frankenstein’, ‘amateurs’, ‘doing it at home

’ I don’t how many times I heard about the lab in the closet – I was so sick of the lab in the closet, it was this one woman who had the lab in the closet Every article had a picture of the lab in the closet So when we decided that we were going to continue, we very deliberately made the decision that we were going to not call ourselves DIY Bio, and we were not going to be a private entity – that we would call ourselves Genspace, and that we would be a non-profit I think this was particularly important, because we were in the city where 9/11 happened, so in order to kind of tell the community that we were doing it for the community, and that we were a community asset, rather than a bunch of people that were just doing whatever they wanted to do and not giving back to the community that was letting us live there and have our lab there, it was very important for us to give back, and so one of the things we started doing immediately was teaching classes for the general public We did a lot of outreach events – we went into a local green market and we had people extracting DNA from the fruits and vegetables, and even something that – it’s kind of an exercise that school children do in the United States

They probably do it there too at science fairs But the fact that people could actually see the DNA from their fruits and vegetables was a really great way of starting conversations around DNA technology Because the question was inevitably ‘Ok, I have this DNA – what can I do with it?’ It opens up all sorts of things – you can take that and recreate the strawberry If every strawberry on earth was gone, you could take the information contained in that little tube and you could resurrect the strawberry, or you could engineer that strawberry so maybe you wouldn’t be allergic to it So it was a great way to start conversations with the general public, even though what they were doing was relatively trivial

Sorry, okay So eventually we figured we have to go into a space that isn’t someone’s living room We can’t really do anything meaningful there – we would do something and then take it all and dump it into a bucket of bleach at the end of the night We wanted to actually start doing science, so this crazy building in Brooklyn is where we found a home That’s a picture of Al, who owns the building, and he had this dream of a building filled with creative businesses

So there must be a hundred different businesses in this crazy building, everything from a broadcast studio to green technology companies, artists, musicians, makers of all kinds We’re on a floor that has a lot of interactive designers, so when you walk in, there are always things opening and closing and buzzing and doing all sorts of weird things We put a lab right in the middle of this loft space We had an opening party and the reporter got one of his friends to write an article about it, and this is the first article that was written about us – it was in the New York Times; unfortunately it was in the fashion section [laughs], right under the fold – right under Diane von Furstenberg This one I’m more proud of – this was in a section of Science magazine that was a special synthetic biology section, and we were sandwiched between George Church and Bio Art

And they called it A Lab Of Our Own – and they really went through, I think, it was very interesting how the reporter understood how these spaces could add value to the whole world of synthetic biology This is the second thing that happened Nature did a video of us Video: It works a lot like a gym The idea is you come whenever you like, and you pay dues like you would in a gym

Using mostly donated equipment and found materials, a small group of biology enthusiasts recently created this lab at a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York ‘We built a lab on this big open space It’s a big glass cube All the materials that we’ve made it out of are found materials, so glass doors, windows that were salvaged and repurposed’ But why would people want to run lab experiments in their spare time? ‘It’s attractive to people that have ideas that aren’t necessarily useful, but they’re certainly fun

’ One of the first projects being developed by the Genspace team is a device that will be launched by helium balloons, 30 kilometres into the earth’s stratosphere in the search for remote signs of life ‘The high altitude microbial sampling station, or HAMS for short, is a weather balloon that’s going to be lofted up to about 100,000 feet into the stratosphere, capture microbes, hopefully, bring them down in a sterile package – in a sealed package – and then have them analysed’ So far, the garage biotechnologists have just a built a prototype of their microbe catcher, but they hope to launch the real deal later this year Genspace is much more than just a laboratory for do-it-yourself-ers It also provides hands-on educational courses for people to come and learn

‘It’s not just scientists who are working in the lab It’s people who are bringing their own curiosity about the world and bringing it to our lab and exploring’ The Genspace founders see themselves on the vanguard of a new movement of DIY biology ‘So Genspace is the first community bio lab, but it certainly won’t be the last I get the sense that there’ll be a lot more labs popping up all over the country and all over the world

’ And they think labs like Genspace could revolutionise the study of biology ‘Now that we’ve reached a certain level of knowledge in the information age, we’ve come to – it’s open space for another age, and I think that age will be the biological age, and I think the next great PC computer or Apple computer won’t be a computer at all; it’ll be an amazing [inaudible] that has this amazing application that everyone’s going to want to have I don’t know what it is yet – if I knew, I wouldn’t be talking to you here [laughs]’ For Nature Medicine, I’m [name]’ Ellen: So the backstory on that video is that it was the very first class I taught, and Dan, that was the reporter, invited his reporter friend, and I was furious at him

I said ‘This is the first class, there’s going to be a lot of stuff I’m working through and I refuse to talk to the reporter’ So Dan ended up talking I think you can get the sense, though that we really didn’t know where we were going We knew that the space was probably going to be used by someone, but we weren’t sure who We thought the space should exist, but we weren’t sure what the value was going to be yet

And I think what’s interesting is that in the past six years, we’ve emerged with a much clearer idea of what these spaces can do This is a worldwide phenomenon – this is actually, probably needs a little, a few more little pins put on it, because I think it’s from a couple of years ago, but approximately every two weeks, someone emails me and says they’re trying to start one of these labs somewhere in the world And you can see there’s one in Sydney called BioFoundry at the ATP Centre, and there’s one starting up in Melbourne, and even thought right now the United States and Europe sort of have the most, this is slowly spreading as an idea whose time has come It’s ridiculously easy to set up one of these in terms of monetary investment There are several labs that have started by doing a crowd-funding campaign – this is one in California, Berkeley, called Counterculture Labs, and they raised their initial money through a Kickstarter campaign

This is what our lab looks like, so the glass cube that Dan was talking about is something you can see in the photograph Those are all old sliding glass doors and windows The lab benches are old stainless steel restaurant counters, and the thing that I like about this kind of found aesthetic is that when a teacher comes into the space and doesn’t have a lot of resources in their school, they can look around and say ‘Well, look at this lab – this lab is doing actual real science, and you don’t have to have a $100,000 set up with beautiful lab benches and everything else’ It’s very unintimidating – it sort of levels the playing field I think, between people that are doing science and people that aren’t doing science yet We thought in the beginning the people that would come would be mainly the curious – people that I would call the Discovery Channel crowd, people that had seen stuff on TV and kind of wanted to try it out

We started teaching classes very early, because we realised that if we wanted to provide accessibility, that there’s a little bit more of a ramp-up for doing biotech than there is for doing something like learning how to solder, for example But what surprised me was that New York has a very vital bio-arts scene, and the artists were actually the first to use the space You actually have a program here in Perth called Symbiotica, which is one of the original art science collaborative spaces within a university, and a lot of the artists that came to Genspace were inspired by that program and needed a place to do their artistic practice I was amazed by how people who had never worked in labs before were able to learn and pick up some pretty sophisticated lab techniques This is a kid who was doing and eight-week thesis project at a local art school, and what he wanted to do was have cells turn different colours at different parts of the cell cycle

And he talked to someone who had a microscope set up where you could take time-lapse photography into photographing these cells that he has transfected with a plasmid that had the different cyclens, which are proteins that are expressed at different times in the cell cycle tagged with fluorescent dyes, and the he took that and he did image capture and he set it to music and did all this other stuff with it, but the fact that he was actually able to do cell culture and genetic engineering having never done anything before was really an eye-opener to me This is probably my favourite project; this is Heather [name] and she did a project called Strange Revisions She was wondering what can you find out about a person from something they leave behind – a piece of chewing gum on the street, a cigarette butt, a hair We’ve all seen the CSI thing where they’ll find something at a crime scene and they’ll know a lot about the perpetrator, but as an artist she was interested in appearance, and it turned out there were a lot of markers of appearance that you can find out from the DNA So for instance, hair and eye colour, body weight, ethnicity

So she came to our lab, she learned how to do a procedure called PCR, she bought a DNA extraction kit that is readily available – the same sort of kit that law enforcement uses – and we taught her how to do these procedures in the lab and as she said in an interview, it’s kind of like cooking – you have to just be very precise about everything you’re doing, but it’s not rocket science And she was able to create these portraits, 3D printed portraits, of people she had never met from the information that she got off of these minute pieces of DNA that were on the chewing gum and the cigarette butts And this project was meant to highlight the fact that we no longer have genomic privacy If somebody who is not a scientist can teach themselves to do this, the markers that have to do with biomedical stuff are much more well researched than the markers that have to do with things like facial shape and eye colour So her point was she could potentially now more about you than your doctor does, just from something you’ve discarded

People are very, very interested in finding out about their own genome 23 and Me is really big in the US, and people come to our classes to find out about their own genomes We do an exercise where they look at mitochondrial DNA, which has to do with maternal ancestry We also teach them some very simple – sort of the hello world of genetic engineering; they take a gene from a jellyfish expressing green fluorescent protein, and they put it into a taching strain of ecoli and they turn it green

The regulations are different in the US than here, so I’m not advocating this going on here in a space that doesn’t have a license, but in the United States we don’t have to worry about that at this point in time People get very into actually doing this stuff hands-on, and we’ve been running these classes now for six years and they’re still getting filled up every time One of the interesting things that happened around 2011 was that there was a couple of girls in a local high school that did a science fair project where they used a technique called DNA barcoding, which is a way of determining what species something is by looking at certain regions of the DNA, rather than what the appearance of the organism is Traditional identification, like say of a plant, is how many petals does the flower have, what colour is it, what shape is the leaf? There’s a movement to create these DNA barcodes, just like a supermarket barcode, for all life on earth, and these girls did something very interesting: they used it to empower the consumer to look at truth in food labelling So they went to a local sushi restaurant, and they got pieces of the fish and brought them home, and using equipment they bought off eBay and with the help of their dad, who worked at Rockefeller University, they did some simple DNA barcoding and were able to determine that about 30 per cent of the fish was mislabelled

So this is particularly egregious when you’ve got something that’s, like, white tuna that you’re paying top dollar for and it turns out to be a cheaper fish, like tilapia, and this made the headlines in New York – it was called Sushigate; the reporters were trying to get the girls to tell them where the restaurants were that were selling the fish, and they said ‘We’re scientists; we’re not consumer advocates’ But it opened the door for an exploration of, like an exploration that was sort of in your hands; in other words, you didn’t have to get the FDA or some other organisation to tell you whether or not the food was what you thought it was You could actually test it yourself for a relatively low price point, and using a procedure that even a high school kid could do in their kitchen We have a lot of high school teachers and students that come to Genspace to use our lab as a facility if they don’t have the facility in their own school There’s a competition around DNA barcoding now that’s run by Cold Spring Harbor Labs in New York, and we have several groups of students and teachers that come in and use our space as a base for doing this sort of thing

And they’re investigating everything from the food labelling, so you know, is that goat cheese really goat cheese, is that caviar really beluga, to stuff about the environment, like what sort of invasive species are in my backyard, etcetera etcetera I thought it would be a good idea if we could engage the general public with barcoding, because it is kind of simple, and everyone in the United States seems to be crazy about Alaska There must be six or seven different programs between Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers and Flying Wild Alaska, so I do have a cabin in Alaska, and I go there every year, usually and so we thought wouldn’t it be nice if we did an expedition and brought back some plants from Alaska and used that to engage the general public in a DNA barcoding exercise over pizza and beer? So we call it PCR and Pizza, and we have an open night once a month where we invite the public to come in and do it And Ted was kind enough to make a film out of some of my amateur camera shots of the time that we were in Alaska I just love Alaska – I visited it for the first time about 15 years ago – I totally fell in love with it, and I actually bought some land in the middle of a national park called [inaudible] St Elias

This is the little cabin, built out of trees that we felled on the property a few years ago – that’s my cabin at night It’s solar powered; I have little LED lights in it, and we have a small wood stove in it, and that’s where we got all our stuff together for the expedition; we used it as a base camp So we were flying out on two shifts to the [name] Valley When we started getting into DNA barcoding at Genspace, I thought what a great place to start –a remote area in a national park – and collect plant samples, because most species on earth haven’t been barcoded yet, especially an area like Alaska where you have all these amazingly hearty but yet very ecologically fragile species due to things like global warming that you want to preserve and you want to be able to protect with legislation You want to be able to identify them without question in the legislation, and barcoding is a very good way of doing that

We wanted to get as far away from the usual place where the plane set people down, because we didn’t want to take samples of plants that might have been contaminants that people had brought in with them And we hiked as far as we could down the [name] Valley, and we each carried our own sleeping gear and food, and then we had two tents with us You can’t carry enough food in the bear containers to go for more than, I’d say, about four days, and you always want to have at least one extra day of food in case the plane can’t get to you, which is always the fun of Alaska, because you never know what it’s going to throw at you So we’re about to set out for our first whole day of collecting specimens, and half the team is going to go up into more higher Alpine elevations, up the ridge, and collect those, and the other half if going to go down to the river banks and collect the water plants The way that we identify plants now is the same as we did 100 years ago – you take the plant, you sandwich it between two layers of newspaper, you press it flat and dry it out, and then you show it to an expert who identifies it

We have to be really careful when we’re collecting things like the grasses and the sedges, because really the only way you can tell the apart is the seed head, so you have to find one that’s got a seed head and dig up that whole plant The identification is going to be through the New York Botanical Garden, and that’s why we had to collect the entire plant Once a DNA barcode is associated with this plan, no one will ever have to do that again DNA barcoding is a new way to establish taxonomy between species We can take a small piece of the plant – we don’t even need the whole plant – and we can look at specific places in the genome and it will tell us what species that plant is

You don’t have to be an expert to identify it if the plant has been barcoded in the past All you have to do is extract DNA and compare it to a database that’s been established, called the Barcode of Life database If a plant hasn’t been barcoded before, then that person is down in the database as having contributed the barcode and advanced science, so it’s kind of cool because it’s crowd sourced science but with a very specific purpose And here’s us on the deck of the cabin, trying to get all of our samples prepared for sending them back We probably have between 200 and 300 plant samples

It was a very successful expedition, and it’s going to lay the groundwork now for future expeditions They did a good job of putting my crummy footage together into something that looked pretty good So we have a lot of these nights, the PCR and Pizza nights, and I think we’ve put probably hundreds of people through this barcoding exercise, and we teach them how to use pipettes and they grind up the plant samples, so it’s been a very good way to engage the general public in science This is the first barcode we did, and I was so excited, this beautiful little flower, and then when I looked at the closest relative, what family it was in, it was called a lousewort, so [laughs] I was a little disappointed about that We also brought back – we had a high school student who was really interested in grizzly bears, and she begged me to bring back some scat, and she dissected it and found little bits of berries and fur and stuff, and she actually barcoded all those little bits and tried to figure out what the bear was eating, which was kind of cool

We do a lot of work with students – I think it’s one of the main ways that we give back to the community, is that we give students who don’t have a place to do work an opportunity to experience real scientific enquiry, not the sort of thing where they go into somebody’s lab and they do some repetitive operation and they tell everyone they’ve done cancer research – I hate that, when students go ‘Oh yeah, I worked at this university’ and I say ‘Oh great, what did you do?’ And they say ‘Oh, I don’t know I was putting liquid into these tubes and then it was an assay of some sort’ And I had to go ‘Okay, well what was the lab doing?’ And they say ‘Oh, they were doing pancreatic cancer’ And I say ‘Great, what was the hypothesis?’ ‘I don’t really know’ So when people come into Genspace, when students come in, I make sure they’re really involved in determining what the project is, and we get a lot of really smart kids that want to come in and do something – we had a kid that was diagnosed with ADHD and he read a paper that there was a particular genomic signature, and he was able to actually test himself using cells that he got from the inside of his mouth

We had gal who wanted to see if you put the green fluorescent protein into bacteria, since it absorbs UV light and radiates out green light, does that protect the bacteria from UV damage? So all sorts of interesting projects that are generated by the students themselves, and not something that’s a tiny piece of a giant project that’s in a professional lab, and I think that that’s a big difference The students have said that the research gets very personal of them – they don’t know if they’re going to get the results they think they’re going to get, they don’t know if whatever they’re going to do is going to work, and we actually have to literally throw them out of the lab sometimes – they get obsessed with their projects Every year we participate in this giant genetic engineering contest called iGem, International Genetic Engineering Machine competition It’s about – almost 300 teams from all over the world; they gather together for a jamboree at the end of October in Boston after working all summer on some sort of a genetic engineering project, and actually you’ve got teams from Sydney; I’m not sure if UT has a team, but several places in Sydney have been sending teams to this for years We’ve been doing it since 2011; this is some of the kids that worked on our iGem team in 2013, I think, and we work on all sorts of different things that are, really the students kind of come up with the ideas and then carry them through, and because we’re going head to head with universities, it’s very interesting to see that we can compete, not obviously with the very top universities that have all of these incredible resources, but certainly with the run of the mill teams, there’s a non-competitive medalling structure, and we’ve usually gotten a gold medal every year

We’ve got a lot of people that donate their time – this is a woman who started helping us mentor our iGem team when she was a postdoc; she now works for the American Society for Microbiology in an editorial capacity on their journals, and she continues to donate her time over the summer to help these kids in the lab and mentor them And we get a lot of love from the scientific community – people are on our advisory board, the person who runs the biosafety department at MIT is on our advisory board, as well as a lot of other people from local universities, and it’s amazing how generous these people are with their time Last year we did a project around a really polluted canal in New York City, the [name] canal has had stuff dumped into it for 100 years – cold tar, all sorts of nasty stuff So we decided to dredge samples from the bottom and do what’s called a microbiome analysis So we partnered with a researcher at Cornell Medical College to do the deep sequencing, and only recently have we been able to determine all of the organisms that are in a particular sample, in terms of the microbial content

You all have about two pounds organisms living on you and in you, and we didn’t know what most of them were until, I’d say, within the last 10 years, deep sequencing has gotten sensitive enough to pick up even minute amounts of DNA So you’ve got about 150 species of microbes living on you, and the canal also had a microbiome, and it was organisms that were extremophiles that were able to live in this environment on the bottom that had all this coal tar and all sorts of other nasty extremophiles idea was to catalogue it, both because we were interested in these extremophiles – and there may be some value in that: maybe some of these organisms can be used to detoxify other waterways, because they’re obviously living down there and eating this stuff, and indeed when we did the analysis, this was a really lovely visualisation by one of the postdocs in the Cornell lab, where if you go down the canal, you see all the Xs where we sampled, and if you click on a particular branch of the tree of life, it pops up where along the canal you found that organism and what, how much of that organism was there – what percentage of the DNA was of that organism What was cool was about 50 per cent of the DNA didn’t match anything in the database, so there’s a lot more to be learned This whole microbiome of everything is a field that’s just starting, and it was really interesting to be able to actually contribute to it by having this really interesting baseline of this polluted waterway And we’ve gone on to collect through the different seasons, and I think there’s going to be another paper published pretty soon by the Cornell group around that

We also do a lot of outreach with kids when we can, going to science fairs, doing bacterial painting, where they draw within a circle a design and they trace over a petri dish with these little sticks that are dipped into harmless bacteria that are expressing these fluorescent proteins We take them back to the lab, grow them up, put them on a black light box and take photographs and post them on our website We’ve done workshops all over the world, as far away as Cairo, Nigeria, and we also interface with the bio-art community and the design community So this is an event that happens every year in New York called BioFabricate, which is a conference that has both designers that are interested in sustainable design, companies that are working with biomaterials, such as there’s a company in New York that’s trying to make in-vitro meat and leather, doing it in a petri dish, and also just people from the major corporations, like Nike, that are interested in maybe incorporating sustainable design into their product stream And every year we have a pop-up lab at Fabricate

We also have a program called the biodesign challenge where we challenge people in design schools to imagine the future of biotech, and this year we had 12 schools all over the United States The professors were paired with scientists and they put their students through an entire semester of imagining different areas of biotech and how they might play out, and the best project from each class went to a competition that was held at the Museum of Modern Art with a prize for the winner So we’re going to continue to do that competition, because I think some really interesting imaginations came out of that competition We also have people that are using the space to innovate So one of the things that I wanted to see was people using it as kind of a pre-incubator space, and it took a long time, but I think this last wave of users in this past year has been a lot of people that are trying to start companies, or trying to do a proof of concept experiment to see if they want to go forward with it

So these three people are examples – one is working on consumer products, one is working on turning spent grain from the brewing industry into animal feed using a fungus that turns cellulose into carbohydrate, and one is working on trying to make new biomaterials in fermentation vats Our biggest success so far has been a person that was working on like a reverse-engineered piece of lab equipment, so he was in a design program and he was using a lot of 3D printers He took one of our biotech classes, he noticed there was a lot of pipetting, he said ‘This is really boring – can I make a 3D printer that’s a robot that will pipette for me?’ And he went ahead and designed this thing, not knowing that there are laboratory robots that do this but they cost $100,000, so he designed one for about $2000 And he hit this sweet spot, sort of like these personal 3D printers that nobody thought people would gravitate towards He did a Kickstarter, he was picked up by accelerator programs and now he has a company with $2 million worth of funding and employs 16 people

And all of this out of the juxtaposition of his art practice and the stuff that he saw at Genspace One of the things that people often ask me about is, is editing DNA something that is safe to do in a relatively casual space like Genspace? We do have a policy that everyone has to do – we don’t really care whether what they’re doing is going to make money or if it’s going to save mankind, or even if it’s been done before All we care about is if it’s safe, so we work within what’s called in the United States Biosafety Level 1 guidelines, so we don’t work with anything that’s pathogenic to humans or animals and we screen projects before they’re allowed to be done by our members Because the membership is sort of like a gym, but it’s not anyone can join They have to tell us what they want to do and what reagents they’re going to use and what organisms they’re going to use

The movies are unilaterally dystopic – pretty much every movie about genetic engineering, it’s a bad thing I would like to combat that These spaces – these unconventional spaces – have been looked at by presidential committees in the United States and by UN committees – they’ve found no reason to shut us down, and as a matter of fact, there’s a debate going on as to whether or not they should even be regulated in the United States, because they feel that it might squelch innovation We have a very good relationship with our local homeland security – we reached out to them in the very beginning when we opened Genspace, and the FBI actually comes and does workshops in our space for kids about once a year I’ll just conclude by saying these spaces have several uses, so they can supplement STEM education, which I think is a really important use; they can act as a pre-incubator space for people that want to do a proof of concept experiment; and the price point is very low – it’s $100 a month to be a member and have access to all of this equipment and a certain degree of mentorship

You can also use the space to do kind of personal exploration and there are people that just want to go through every procedure in a book and learn it I think that this kind of space is important, because there isn’t really any other space that you can have access to where the only thing that you have to conform to is safety If you talk to a professional scientist, they really get excited about this, because tinkering and experimenting was why we got into it in the first place, and you lose a lot of that sometimes; it gets beat out of you as you chase grants, or you’re in a company and you kind of lose that excitement sometimes for the field that you originally went into And I think, to me, I came into it with a sort of condescending attitude that I was going to help these people, but really they gave back to me the love of science and also the ability to communicate what I do to a wider audience There’s a lot of resistance in certain groups in the United States to genetically modified food; we’ve just had a bunch of legislation that is going through Congress that is trying to label GMO food in the supermarkets, even though there is no health risk associated with it, which is very scary to me

If you ask, 40 per cent of Americans tell you that they will not eat food with DNA in it, which is a level of ignorance that disturbs me profoundly Spaces like this are neutral The thing I like about them is that if you’re sitting in Genspace, which looks really casual, and you’re doing something that’s real genetic engineering, side by side with your teenage daughter, it really demystifies it It makes it not something that scientists are doing that you have no control over, something that’s being done to you, but something that you’re actually participating in and actually might provide something useful in your own life There’s a lot of really heavy technologies that are coming down the pipe right now

Genome editing technologies like Crisper; the ability that we’ve never had before to edit embryos with precision; the ability to actually wipe a species off the face of the earth using something like a gene drive – these are technologies that are no longer science fiction; they’re probably coming within the next five or 10 years It’s something that I want to start the conversation with the general public, because I want them to be engaged but from a position of actually understanding what they’re debating, not from a position of ignorance and fear the way I see has happened in some of the GMO discussions, where people think if they eat a genetically modified tomato, then somehow the DNA is going to affect their DNA We have in incident in the United States now where the Zika virus is coming up the southern states like Florida, and there was a non-binding referendum around whether or not his particular genetically modified mosquito should be released And some of the comments were actually frightening – people thought that like spider man, if the mosquito bit them, that somehow they would start taking on insect characteristics That’s the thing I think that these spaces are really uniquely situation to do something about, because if you’re in a casual conversation with somebody that you consider part of your neighbourhood, and a neighbourhood resource, it’s a lot different to hearing someone on television reassuring you that everything is going to be fine

And the dialogue between scientists and the public has often been very stilted and not very productive, because of the different cultures involved in terms of science being shades of grey, and the public wanting black and white reassurances I’m hoping that in the future, these labs will be places where this sort of discussion can take place, and that sooner or later, everyone will be as DNA literate as they literate in, say, electricity We all have sort of a working knowledge of electricity; we may not understand it 100 per cent, but we’re not scared of it We realise that it’s powerful, but we’re not afraid the way we were when it first came out that it was leaking out of the sockets and coming to get us So I’d like to see everybody equally literate in DNA, and that’s kind of what drives me

I’m going to end here Thank you very much [Applause] Moderator: At this stage I’d like to introduce the two panellists from UTS – scientists who, when they do get students into their labs, do explain to them what they’re doing One of them’s Professor Peter Ralph; he’s the Director of the Climate Change Cluster, or C3, at our Faculty of Science, and he leads a dynamic multidisciplinary team dedicated to improving predictions about the impacts of climate change He’s an expert in aquatic photosynthesis, bio-optics, gas fluxes and chlorophyll a fluorescence, and is published widely in Nature, PLoS One, and other journals

He leads the Algal Biosystems group in C3 where the algae being used for biomass production to develop more sustainable feedstock for agriculture, pharmaceutical and nutritional supplements using micro-algae, as well as re-engineering, and building with algae facades Next to Peter is Dr Sheila Donnelly; she’s a senior lecturer in our School of Life Sciences, Faculty of Science She’s a member of the ithree Institute of infection, immunity and innovation, and the course coordinator of the biotechnology program at UTS Her research focuses on host parasite interactions It has two major streams: one is to understand the mechanism by which helminth parasites, or worms, successfully manipulate their host’s immune systems, and uses this knowledge to develop novel therapeutics for the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as diabetes type 1

Dr Donnelly has published widely in high impact scientific journals, and has been involved in commercialisation of her research findings for the benefits of human health So please join me in welcoming our panellists [Applause] Moderator: So I’ll start off with my question, and then we’ll open to the audience So my first question to the panel will be, and somewhat alluded to in your talk, is how can we work better together, particularly in Sydney, where this is just began, so that universities and Genspace and these biohacking communities can work together and benefit from each other? So I’ll ask – I guess I’ll first open with Ellen, and then we’ll go to the other panellists Ellen: One thing we’ve done really successfully is we’ve provided a platform for people who are professional scientists to explain their work to the general public

For example, Rockefeller University has a program where their graduate students and postdocs take what they’re doing and give lectures to the general public as part of their science outreach efforts And we’ve hosted a number of those lectures And I think that that’s – it’s good practise for the scientists to kind of – I think there’s a tendency for scientists to say ‘Well, we’re going to educate you public, we’re going to – we have this knowledge and we’re going to impart it to you’ And there isn’t that much of a two-way street So one of the funniest things I ever saw in these lectures was an immunologist and a Brooklyn hipster who didn’t want to immunise his children get into a real knockdown drag-out fight

And every time she would say ‘Oh, we’ve done meta studies and the person who says vaccines are bad, his stuff has been examined by the scientific community and it’s not valid’, he would bring up a conspiracy theory – he would say ‘Well, how do I know? Why should I trust this?’ And she got more and more upset, until finally the person who had invited her who was very smart said ‘Alright, look at it this way When the tobacco companies were running rampant in the United States and they were able to control scientists who were publishing papers that said that tobacco was okay, with all of their power and their money, the highest percentage they were able to penetrate the scientific community was 50 per cent So 50 per cent of the articles said cigarettes were bad for you and 50 per cent said they were good What are the chances that the biotech companies, for whom vaccines are not even a money-making product, will have the power to sway 999 per cent of the scientists into saying something that isn’t true?’ And that argument made sense, so it was as much a learning experience for the scientist as it was for the people that were in the audience

So I think that’s one thing right away that you can do, is donate your time and your effort to giving lectures and talks at these spaces, for interacting – maybe send your postdocs and graduate students to help train people in the labs or run classes and workshops, hands-on stuff Moderator: Okay, Sheila Sheila: Totally agree, and you’ve spoken for me It’s really, I think, about engaging and communicating – I think that’s really important, and as a scientist myself, I’m guilty of saying ‘I’m going to educate everyone I’ll give a public lecture in a museum and I’ll educate

’ Well actually, I think it’s about making it accessible – I think that’s what I really enjoyed about your talk; that it really makes science and the understanding of it accessible to anyone who wants it I think that certainly in Australia – I’m not sure about America, but certainly in Australia, I find that there isn’t much out there in information from scientists, the science community is not good at communicating with the general public, and perhaps helping them understand science and understanding where we’re going with science, so I think definitely engagement with the [inaudible] community, science is absolutely critical, and for postdocs and postgrads, it’s an essential training that they have to have Ellen: I went through a very traditional scientific education I went to university, I got a PhD, I worked in industry and a little bit in academia, but sometime around 2009, my life took a very strange turn, and I find myself where I am today People a lot smarter than I have, than I am, have been talking about how this age is going to be the age of biology, and an age where biology and technology meet

There were some people hanging around the Boston area around 2008 that had this idea that maybe biology could be done by the average person, that there could be a democratisation of the practice of biotechnology, and that this would result in more people understanding biotechnology and a greater public understanding would benefit everyone They called themselves DIY Bio, and I was sitting at my desk one day at work reading a News of the Weird column in my local newspaper, and I saw these people that were trying to make glowing green yoghurt and had labs in their closets, and at the time, America had just gone through eight years of a president who seemed not to believe in global warming or evolution, and that was very scary for the scientific community And I looked at this and thought well, this is kind of weird and edgy, but these are people that are so interested in what I do for a living that they actually want to do it as a hobby, and something like that should be nurtured and supported, not supressed So I started lurking on this Google group that they had created called DIY Bio, and I saw people in various parts of the country and the world saying ‘Oh, let’s see if we can start a little group in our area’ and I watched groups in New York kind of start to get going and then sort of peter out, and then finally I decided alright, let’s see what happens And it’s one of those things that you do and you don’t know at the time it’s kind of a turning point in your life, so I typed in ‘Anyone who wants to start a DIY Bio group in New York City, let’s all meet at this coffee shop near the Beacon Theatre at 7 o’clock

’ And three people showed up – one was a reporter, a trend which has continued to this very day, but the other two were students who couldn’t get their university to give them any space to do projects that they wanted to do – things that they had thought up And science funding was so tight that professors couldn’t really afford to spend a lot of time training people that weren’t going to work on whatever it was they were doing to get their grant money So I felt really bad – my parents were artists, and when I tried to get a lab internship, I had the same problem I was knocking on doors and begging people to take me in And there’s never enough lab space for kids to do internships

So that was one thing that made me feel there really should be a space like this in New York So we started meeting and there were several factors going on at that point in time – the maker movement, maker fair, Make Magazine People were coming together and forming these electronic maker spaces, places that would have, say, a 3D printer and a laser cutter and a bunch of soldering irons, and people would come together and do programming and electronics and teach classes and share all the equipment We also had the rise of something called synthetic biology, which was a bunch of people in the engineering department, MIT and Harvard, started turning their attention towards programming life instead of just programming computers, and they hit upon this system for a series of standard – a system to standardise and have specifications for pieces of DNA, so that you could kind of use them like Lego blocks and have compatible ends, so you could do sort of modular building of genetic circuits rather than the sorts of things that I grew up with, which is that you would kind of put something together and test it, and if it didn’t work, you would do another iteration In this case, if you standardise things and you automate it, you can do high throughput synthesis of DNA

So this attempt to make biology more accessible to engineers had the unintended consequence of making it more accessible to the general public The third factor was there was a whole bunch of companies that went out of business in 2008 in the United States and dumped their equipment on eBay, so you could get a cheap PCR machine, and the synthesis of DNA and the sequencing of DNA was getting cheaper and more accessible So around now you can get an average sized bacterial gene synthesised for around $99 in the United States So we started out meeting in the reporter’s kitchen, and we would do some really – anyone who’s in the field will recognise, we were doing electrophoresis here, which is just a way of analysing DNA, so no live organisms, no scary stuff, but what was amazing was how the general public, when we would announce that we were having an event, like pizza and beer and electrophoresis, they would show up and they would be taking pictures and watching the DNA move in the [inaudible] and getting really, really excited, and this is something that people in molecular biology do every day, and it’s really kind of very boring to them And it was really kind of cool to think well yeah, I actually do something that is really cool

The fact that you’re watching DNA move in an electric field with your eyes is really, really cool So I started to get excited about the idea of transmitting the love that I felt for my profession directly to the general public through these hands-on events At the time, unfortunately, a lot of the press was being very negative about this movement I particularly like the word ‘Frankenstein’, ‘amateurs’, ‘doing it at home’ I don’t how many times I heard about the lab in the closet – I was so sick of the lab in the closet, it was this one woman who had the lab in the closet

Every article had a picture of the lab in the closet So when we decided that we were going to continue, we very deliberately made the decision that we were going to not call ourselves DIY Bio, and we were not going to be a private entity – that we would call ourselves Genspace, and that we would be a non-profit I think this was particularly important, because we were in the city where 9/11 happened, so in order to kind of tell the community that we were doing it for the community, and that we were a community asset, rather than a bunch of people that were just doing whatever they wanted to do and not giving back to the community that was letting us live there and have our lab there, it was very important for us to give back, and so one of the things we started doing immediately was teaching classes for the general public We did a lot of outreach events – we went into a local green market and we had people extracting DNA from the fruits and vegetables, and even something that – it’s kind of an exercise that school children do in the United States They probably do it there too at science fairs

But the fact that people could actually see the DNA from their fruits and vegetables was a really great way of starting conversations around DNA technology Because the question was inevitably ‘Ok, I have this DNA – what can I do with it?’ It opens up all sorts of things – you can take that and recreate the strawberry If every strawberry on earth was gone, you could take the information contained in that little tube and you could resurrect the strawberry, or you could engineer that strawberry so maybe you wouldn’t be allergic to it So it was a great way to start conversations with the general public, even though what they were doing was relatively trivial Sorry, okay

So eventually we figured we have to go into a space that isn’t someone’s living room We can’t really do anything meaningful there – we would do something and then take it all and dump it into a bucket of bleach at the end of the night We wanted to actually start doing science, so this crazy building in Brooklyn is where we found a home That’s a picture of Al, who owns the building, and he had this dream of a building filled with creative businesses So there must be a hundred different businesses in this crazy building, everything from a broadcast studio to green technology companies, artists, musicians, makers of all kinds

We’re on a floor that has a lot of interactive designers, so when you walk in, there are always things opening and closing and buzzing and doing all sorts of weird things We put a lab right in the middle of this loft space We had an opening party and the reporter got one of his friends to write an article about it, and this is the first article that was written about us – it was in the New York Times; unfortunately it was in the fashion section [laughs], right under the fold – right under Diane von Furstenberg This one I’m more proud of – this was in a section of Science magazine that was a special synthetic biology section, and we were sandwiched between George Church and Bio Art And they called it A Lab Of Our Own – and they really went through, I think, it was very interesting how the reporter understood how these spaces could add value to the whole world of synthetic biology

This is the second thing that happened Nature did a video of us Video: It works a lot like a gym The idea is you come whenever you like, and you pay dues like you would in a gym Using mostly donated equipment and found materials, a small group of biology enthusiasts recently created this lab at a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York

‘We built a lab on this big open space It’s a big glass cube All the materials that we’ve made it out of are found materials, so glass doors, windows that were salvaged and repurposed’ But why would people want to run lab experiments in their spare time? ‘It’s attractive to people that have ideas that aren’t necessarily useful, but they’re certainly fun’ One of the first projects being developed by the Genspace team is a device that will be launched by helium balloons, 30 kilometres into the earth’s stratosphere in the search for remote signs of life

‘The high altitude microbial sampling station, or HAMS for short, is a weather balloon that’s going to be lofted up to about 100,000 feet into the stratosphere, capture microbes, hopefully, bring them down in a sterile package – in a sealed package – and then have them analysed’ So far, the garage biotechnologists have just a built a prototype of their microbe catcher, but they hope to launch the real deal later this year Genspace is much more than just a laboratory for do-it-yourself-ers It also provides hands-on educational courses for people to come and learn ‘It’s not just scientists who are working in the lab

It’s people who are bringing their own curiosity about the world and bringing it to our lab and exploring’ The Genspace founders see themselves on the vanguard of a new movement of DIY biology ‘So Genspace is the first community bio lab, but it certainly won’t be the last I get the sense that there’ll be a lot more labs popping up all over the country and all over the world’ And they think labs like Genspace could revolutionise the study of biology

‘Now that we’ve reached a certain level of knowledge in the information age, we’ve come to – it’s open space for another age, and I think that age will be the biological age, and I think the next great PC computer or Apple computer won’t be a computer at all; it’ll be an amazing [inaudible] that has this amazing application that everyone’s going to want to have I don’t know what it is yet – if I knew, I wouldn’t be talking to you here [laughs]’ For Nature Medicine, I’m [name]’ Ellen: So the backstory on that video is that it was the very first class I taught, and Dan, that was the reporter, invited his reporter friend, and I was furious at him I said ‘This is the first class, there’s going to be a lot of stuff I’m working through and I refuse to talk to the reporter

’ So Dan ended up talking I think you can get the sense, though that we really didn’t know where we were going We knew that the space was probably going to be used by someone, but we weren’t sure who We thought the space should exist, but we weren’t sure what the value was going to be yet And I think what’s interesting is that in the past six years, we’ve emerged with a much clearer idea of what these spaces can do

This is a worldwide phenomenon – this is actually, probably needs a little, a few more little pins put on it, because I think it’s from a couple of years ago, but approximately every two weeks, someone emails me and says they’re trying to start one of these labs somewhere in the world And you can see there’s one in Sydney called BioFoundry at the ATP Centre, and there’s one starting up in Melbourne, and even thought right now the United States and Europe sort of have the most, this is slowly spreading as an idea whose time has come It’s ridiculously easy to set up one of these in terms of monetary investment There are several labs that have started by doing a crowd-funding campaign – this is one in California, Berkeley, called Counterculture Labs, and they raised their initial money through a Kickstarter campaign This is what our lab looks like, so the glass cube that Dan was talking about is something you can see in the photograph

Those are all old sliding glass doors and windows The lab benches are old stainless steel restaurant counters, and the thing that I like about this kind of found aesthetic is that when a teacher comes into the space and doesn’t have a lot of resources in their school, they can look around and say ‘Well, look at this lab – this lab is doing actual real science, and you don’t have to have a $100,000 set up with beautiful lab benches and everything else’ It’s very unintimidating – it sort of levels the playing field I think, between people that are doing science and people that aren’t doing science yet We thought in the beginning the people that would come would be mainly the curious – people that I would call the Discovery Channel crowd, people that had seen stuff on TV and kind of wanted to try it out We started teaching classes very early, because we realised that if we wanted to provide accessibility, that there’s a little bit more of a ramp-up for doing biotech than there is for doing something like learning how to solder, for example

But what surprised me was that New York has a very vital bio-arts scene, and the artists were actually the first to use the space You actually have a program here in Perth called Symbiotica, which is one of the original art science collaborative spaces within a university, and a lot of the artists that came to Genspace were inspired by that program and needed a place to do their artistic practice I was amazed by how people who had never worked in labs before were able to learn and pick up some pretty sophisticated lab techniques This is a kid who was doing and eight-week thesis project at a local art school, and what he wanted to do was have cells turn different colours at different parts of the cell cycle And he talked to someone who had a microscope set up where you could take time-lapse photography into photographing these cells that he has transfected with a plasmid that had the different cyclens, which are proteins that are expressed at different times in the cell cycle tagged with fluorescent dyes, and the he took that and he did image capture and he set it to music and did all this other stuff with it, but the fact that he was actually able to do cell culture and genetic engineering having never done anything before was really an eye-opener to me

This is probably my favourite project; this is Heather [name] and she did a project called Strange Revisions She was wondering what can you find out about a person from something they leave behind – a piece of chewing gum on the street, a cigarette butt, a hair We’ve all seen the CSI thing where they’ll find something at a crime scene and they’ll know a lot about the perpetrator, but as an artist she was interested in appearance, and it turned out there were a lot of markers of appearance that you can find out from the DNA So for instance, hair and eye colour, body weight, ethnicity So she came to our lab, she learned how to do a procedure called PCR, she bought a DNA extraction kit that is readily available – the same sort of kit that law enforcement uses – and we taught her how to do these procedures in the lab and as she said in an interview, it’s kind of like cooking – you have to just be very precise about everything you’re doing, but it’s not rocket science

And she was able to create these portraits, 3D printed portraits, of people she had never met from the information that she got off of these minute pieces of DNA that were on the chewing gum and the cigarette butts And this project was meant to highlight the fact that we no longer have genomic privacy If somebody who is not a scientist can teach themselves to do this, the markers that have to do with biomedical stuff are much more well researched than the markers that have to do with things like facial shape and eye colour So her point was she could potentially now more about you than your doctor does, just from something you’ve discarded People are very, very interested in finding out about their own genome

23 and Me is really big in the US, and people come to our classes to find out about their own genomes We do an exercise where they look at mitochondrial DNA, which has to do with maternal ancestry We also teach them some very simple – sort of the hello world of genetic engineering; they take a gene from a jellyfish expressing green fluorescent protein, and they put it into a taching strain of ecoli and they turn it green The regulations are different in the US than here, so I’m not advocating this going on here in a space that doesn’t have a license, but in the United States we don’t have to worry about that at this point in time

People get very into actually doing this stuff hands-on, and we’ve been running these classes now for six years and they’re still getting filled up every time One of the interesting things that happened around 2011 was that there was a couple of girls in a local high school that did a science fair project where they used a technique called DNA barcoding, which is a way of determining what species something is by looking at certain regions of the DNA, rather than what the appearance of the organism is Traditional identification, like say of a plant, is how many petals does the flower have, what colour is it, what shape is the leaf? There’s a movement to create these DNA barcodes, just like a supermarket barcode, for all life on earth, and these girls did something very interesting: they used it to empower the consumer to look at truth in food labelling So they went to a local sushi restaurant, and they got pieces of the fish and brought them home, and using equipment they bought off eBay and with the help of their dad, who worked at Rockefeller University, they did some simple DNA barcoding and were able to determine that about 30 per cent of the fish was mislabelled So this is particularly egregious when you’ve got something that’s, like, white tuna that you’re paying top dollar for and it turns out to be a cheaper fish, like tilapia, and this made the headlines in New York – it was called Sushigate; the reporters were trying to get the girls to tell them where the restaurants were that were selling the fish, and they said ‘We’re scientists; we’re not consumer advocates

’ But it opened the door for an exploration of, like an exploration that was sort of in your hands; in other words, you didn’t have to get the FDA or some other organisation to tell you whether or not the food was what you thought it was You could actually test it yourself for a relatively low price point, and using a procedure that even a high school kid could do in their kitchen We have a lot of high school teachers and students that come to Genspace to use our lab as a facility if they don’t have the facility in their own school There’s a competition around DNA barcoding now that’s run by Cold Spring Harbor Labs in New York, and we have several groups of students and teachers that come in and use our space as a base for doing this sort of thing And they’re investigating everything from the food labelling, so you know, is that goat cheese really goat cheese, is that caviar really beluga, to stuff about the environment, like what sort of invasive species are in my backyard, etcetera etcetera

I thought it would be a good idea if we could engage the general public with barcoding, because it is kind of simple, and everyone in the United States seems to be crazy about Alaska There must be six or seven different programs between Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers and Flying Wild Alaska, so I do have a cabin in Alaska, and I go there every year, usually and so we thought wouldn’t it be nice if we did an expedition and brought back some plants from Alaska and used that to engage the general public in a DNA barcoding exercise over pizza and beer? So we call it PCR and Pizza, and we have an open night once a month where we invite the public to come in and do it And Ted was kind enough to make a film out of some of my amateur camera shots of the time that we were in Alaska I just love Alaska – I visited it for the first time about 15 years ago – I totally fell in love with it, and I actually bought some land in the middle of a national park called [inaudible] St Elias This is the little cabin, built out of trees that we felled on the property a few years ago – that’s my cabin at night

It’s solar powered; I have little LED lights in it, and we have a small wood stove in it, and that’s where we got all our stuff together for the expedition; we used it as a base camp So we were flying out on two shifts to the [name] Valley When we started getting into DNA barcoding at Genspace, I thought what a great place to start –a remote area in a national park – and collect plant samples, because most species on earth haven’t been barcoded yet, especially an area like Alaska where you have all these amazingly hearty but yet very ecologically fragile species due to things like global warming that you want to preserve and you want to be able to protect with legislation You want to be able to identify them without question in the legislation, and barcoding is a very good way of doing that We wanted to get as far away from the usual place where the plane set people down, because we didn’t want to take samples of plants that might have been contaminants that people had brought in with them

And we hiked as far as we could down the [name] Valley, and we each carried our own sleeping gear and food, and then we had two tents with us You can’t carry enough food in the bear containers to go for more than, I’d say, about four days, and you always want to have at least one extra day of food in case the plane can’t get to you, which is always the fun of Alaska, because you never know what it’s going to throw at you So we’re about to set out for our first whole day of collecting specimens, and half the team is going to go up into more higher Alpine elevations, up the ridge, and collect those, and the other half if going to go down to the river banks and collect the water plants The way that we identify plants now is the same as we did 100 years ago – you take the plant, you sandwich it between two layers of newspaper, you press it flat and dry it out, and then you show it to an expert who identifies it We have to be really careful when we’re collecting things like the grasses and the sedges, because really the only way you can tell the apart is the seed head, so you have to find one that’s got a seed head and dig up that whole plant

The identification is going to be through the New York Botanical Garden, and that’s why we had to collect the entire plant Once a DNA barcode is associated with this plan, no one will ever have to do that again DNA barcoding is a new way to establish taxonomy between species We can take a small piece of the plant – we don’t even need the whole plant – and we can look at specific places in the genome and it will tell us what species that plant is You don’t have to be an expert to identify it if the plant has been barcoded in the past

All you have to do is extract DNA and compare it to a database that’s been established, called the Barcode of Life database If a plant hasn’t been barcoded before, then that person is down in the database as having contributed the barcode and advanced science, so it’s kind of cool because it’s crowd sourced science but with a very specific purpose And here’s us on the deck of the cabin, trying to get all of our samples prepared for sending them back We probably have between 200 and 300 plant samples It was a very successful expedition, and it’s going to lay the groundwork now for future expeditions

They did a good job of putting my crummy footage together into something that looked pretty good So we have a lot of these nights, the PCR and Pizza nights, and I think we’ve put probably hundreds of people through this barcoding exercise, and we teach them how to use pipettes and they grind up the plant samples, so it’s been a very good way to engage the general public in science This is the first barcode we did, and I was so excited, this beautiful little flower, and then when I looked at the closest relative, what family it was in, it was called a lousewort, so [laughs] I was a little disappointed about that We also brought back – we had a high school student who was really interested in grizzly bears, and she begged me to bring back some scat, and she dissected it and found little bits of berries and fur and stuff, and she actually barcoded all those little bits and tried to figure out what the bear was eating, which was kind of cool We do a lot of work with students – I think it’s one of the main ways that we give back to the community, is that we give students who don’t have a place to do work an opportunity to experience real scientific enquiry, not the sort of thing where they go into somebody’s lab and they do some repetitive operation and they tell everyone they’ve done cancer research – I hate that, when students go ‘Oh yeah, I worked at this university’ and I say ‘Oh great, what did you do?’ And they say ‘Oh, I don’t know

I was putting liquid into these tubes and then it was an assay of some sort’ And I had to go ‘Okay, well what was the lab doing?’ And they say ‘Oh, they were doing pancreatic cancer’ And I say ‘Great, what was the hypothesis?’ ‘I don’t really know’ So when people come into Genspace, when students come in, I make sure they’re really involved in determining what the project is, and we get a lot of really smart kids that want to come in and do something – we had a kid that was diagnosed with ADHD and he read a paper that there was a particular genomic signature, and he was able to actually test himself using cells that he got from the inside of his mouth We had gal who wanted to see if you put the green fluorescent protein into bacteria, since it absorbs UV light and radiates out green light, does that protect the bacteria from UV damage? So all sorts of interesting projects that are generated by the students themselves, and not something that’s a tiny piece of a giant project that’s in a professional lab, and I think that that’s a big difference

The students have said that the research gets very personal of them – they don’t know if they’re going to get the results they think they’re going to get, they don’t know if whatever they’re going to do is going to work, and we actually have to literally throw them out of the lab sometimes – they get obsessed with their projects Every year we participate in this giant genetic engineering contest called iGem, International Genetic Engineering Machine competition It’s about – almost 300 teams from all over the world; they gather together for a jamboree at the end of October in Boston after working all summer on some sort of a genetic engineering project, and actually you’ve got teams from Sydney; I’m not sure if UT has a team, but several places in Sydney have been sending teams to this for years We’ve been doing it since 2011; this is some of the kids that worked on our iGem team in 2013, I think, and we work on all sorts of different things that are, really the students kind of come up with the ideas and then carry them through, and because we’re going head to head with universities, it’s very interesting to see that we can compete, not obviously with the very top universities that have all of these incredible resources, but certainly with the run of the mill teams, there’s a non-competitive medalling structure, and we’ve usually gotten a gold medal every year We’ve got a lot of people that donate their time – this is a woman who started helping us mentor our iGem team when she was a postdoc; she now works for the American Society for Microbiology in an editorial capacity on their journals, and she continues to donate her time over the summer to help these kids in the lab and mentor them

And we get a lot of love from the scientific community – people are on our advisory board, the person who runs the biosafety department at MIT is on our advisory board, as well as a lot of other people from local universities, and it’s amazing how generous these people are with their time Last year we did a project around a really polluted canal in New York City, the [name] canal has had stuff dumped into it for 100 years – cold tar, all sorts of nasty stuff So we decided to dredge samples from the bottom and do what’s called a microbiome analysis So we partnered with a researcher at Cornell Medical College to do the deep sequencing, and only recently have we been able to determine all of the organisms that are in a particular sample, in terms of the microbial content You all have about two pounds organisms living on you and in you, and we didn’t know what most of them were until, I’d say, within the last 10 years, deep sequencing has gotten sensitive enough to pick up even minute amounts of DNA

So you’ve got about 150 species of microbes living on you, and the canal also had a microbiome, and it was organisms that were extremophiles that were able to live in this environment on the bottom that had all this coal tar and all sorts of other nasty extremophiles idea was to catalogue it, both because we were interested in these extremophiles – and there may be some value in that: maybe some of these organisms can be used to detoxify other waterways, because they’re obviously living down there and eating this stuff, and indeed when we did the analysis, this was a really lovely visualisation by one of the postdocs in the Cornell lab, where if you go down the canal, you see all the Xs where we sampled, and if you click on a particular branch of the tree of life, it pops up where along the canal you found that organism and what, how much of that organism was there – what percentage of the DNA was of that organism What was cool was about 50 per cent of the DNA didn’t match anything in the database, so there’s a lot more to be learned This whole microbiome of everything is a field that’s just starting, and it was really interesting to be able to actually contribute to it by having this really interesting baseline of this polluted waterway And we’ve gone on to collect through the different seasons, and I think there’s going to be another paper published pretty soon by the Cornell group around that We also do a lot of outreach with kids when we can, going to science fairs, doing bacterial painting, where they draw within a circle a design and they trace over a petri dish with these little sticks that are dipped into harmless bacteria that are expressing these fluorescent proteins

We take them back to the lab, grow them up, put them on a black light box and take photographs and post them on our website We’ve done workshops all over the world, as far away as Cairo, Nigeria, and we also interface with the bio-art community and the design community So this is an event that happens every year in New York called BioFabricate, which is a conference that has both designers that are interested in sustainable design, companies that are working with biomaterials, such as there’s a company in New York that’s trying to make in-vitro meat and leather, doing it in a petri dish, and also just people from the major corporations, like Nike, that are interested in maybe incorporating sustainable design into their product stream And every year we have a pop-up lab at Fabricate We also have a program called the biodesign challenge where we challenge people in design schools to imagine the future of biotech, and this year we had 12 schools all over the United States

The professors were paired with scientists and they put their students through an entire semester of imagining different areas of biotech and how they might play out, and the best project from each class went to a competition that was held at the Museum of Modern Art with a prize for the winner So we’re going to continue to do that competition, because I think some really interesting imaginations came out of that competition We also have people that are using the space to innovate So one of the things that I wanted to see was people using it as kind of a pre-incubator space, and it took a long time, but I think this last wave of users in this past year has been a lot of people that are trying to start companies, or trying to do a proof of concept experiment to see if they want to go forward with it So these three people are examples – one is working on consumer products, one is working on turning spent grain from the brewing industry into animal feed using a fungus that turns cellulose into carbohydrate, and one is working on trying to make new biomaterials in fermentation vats

Our biggest success so far has been a person that was working on like a reverse-engineered piece of lab equipment, so he was in a design program and he was using a lot of 3D printers He took one of our biotech classes, he noticed there was a lot of pipetting, he said ‘This is really boring – can I make a 3D printer that’s a robot that will pipette for me?’ And he went ahead and designed this thing, not knowing that there are laboratory robots that do this but they cost $100,000, so he designed one for about $2000 And he hit this sweet spot, sort of like these personal 3D printers that nobody thought people would gravitate towards He did a Kickstarter, he was picked up by accelerator programs and now he has a company with $2 million worth of funding and employs 16 people And all of this out of the juxtaposition of his art practice and the stuff that he saw at Genspace

One of the things that people often ask me about is, is editing DNA something that is safe to do in a relatively casual space like Genspace? We do have a policy that everyone has to do – we don’t really care whether what they’re doing is going to make money or if it’s going to save mankind, or even if it’s been done before All we care about is if it’s safe, so we work within what’s called in the United States Biosafety Level 1 guidelines, so we don’t work with anything that’s pathogenic to humans or animals and we screen projects before they’re allowed to be done by our members Because the membership is sort of like a gym, but it’s not anyone can join They have to tell us what they want to do and what reagents they’re going to use and what organisms they’re going to use The movies are unilaterally dystopic – pretty much every movie about genetic engineering, it’s a bad thing

I would like to combat that These spaces – these unconventional spaces – have been looked at by presidential committees in the United States and by UN committees – they’ve found no reason to shut us down, and as a matter of fact, there’s a debate going on as to whether or not they should even be regulated in the United States, because they feel that it might squelch innovation We have a very good relationship with our local homeland security – we reached out to them in the very beginning when we opened Genspace, and the FBI actually comes and does workshops in our space for kids about once a year I’ll just conclude by saying these spaces have several uses, so they can supplement STEM education, which I think is a really important use; they can act as a pre-incubator space for people that want to do a proof of concept experiment; and the price point is very low – it’s $100 a month to be a member and have access to all of this equipment and a certain degree of mentorship You can also use the space to do kind of personal exploration and there are people that just want to go through every procedure in a book and learn it

I think that this kind of space is important, because there isn’t really any other space that you can have access to where the only thing that you have to conform to is safety If you talk to a professional scientist, they really get excited about this, because tinkering and experimenting was why we got into it in the first place, and you lose a lot of that sometimes; it gets beat out of you as you chase grants, or you’re in a company and you kind of lose that excitement sometimes for the field that you originally went into And I think, to me, I came into it with a sort of condescending attitude that I was going to help these people, but really they gave back to me the love of science and also the ability to communicate what I do to a wider audience There’s a lot of resistance in certain groups in the United States to genetically modified food; we’ve just had a bunch of legislation that is going through Congress that is trying to label GMO food in the supermarkets, even though there is no health risk associated with it, which is very scary to me If you ask, 40 per cent of Americans tell you that they will not eat food with DNA in it, which is a level of ignorance that disturbs me profoundly

Spaces like this are neutral The thing I like about them is that if you’re sitting in Genspace, which looks really casual, and you’re doing something that’s real genetic engineering, side by side with your teenage daughter, it really demystifies it It makes it not something that scientists are doing that you have no control over, something that’s being done to you, but something that you’re actually participating in and actually might provide something useful in your own life There’s a lot of really heavy technologies that are coming down the pipe right now Genome editing technologies like Crisper; the ability that we’ve never had before to edit embryos with precision; the ability to actually wipe a species off the face of the earth using something like a gene drive – these are technologies that are no longer science fiction; they’re probably coming within the next five or 10 years

It’s something that I want to start the conversation with the general public, because I want them to be engaged but from a position of actually understanding what they’re debating, not from a position of ignorance and fear the way I see has happened in some of the GMO discussions, where people think if they eat a genetically modified tomato, then somehow the DNA is going to affect their DNA We have in incident in the United States now where the Zika virus is coming up the southern states like Florida, and there was a non-binding referendum around whether or not his particular genetically modified mosquito should be released And some of the comments were actually frightening – people thought that like spider man, if the mosquito bit them, that somehow they would start taking on insect characteristics That’s the thing I think that these spaces are really uniquely situation to do something about, because if you’re in a casual conversation with somebody that you consider part of your neighbourhood, and a neighbourhood resource, it’s a lot different to hearing someone on television reassuring you that everything is going to be fine And the dialogue between scientists and the public has often been very stilted and not very productive, because of the different cultures involved in terms of science being shades of grey, and the public wanting black and white reassurances

I’m hoping that in the future, these labs will be places where this sort of discussion can take place, and that sooner or later, everyone will be as DNA literate as they literate in, say, electricity We all have sort of a working knowledge of electricity; we may not understand it 100 per cent, but we’re not scared of it We realise that it’s powerful, but we’re not afraid the way we were when it first came out that it was leaking out of the sockets and coming to get us So I’d like to see everybody equally literate in DNA, and that’s kind of what drives me I’m going to end here

Thank you very much [Applause] Moderator: At this stage I’d like to introduce the two panellists from UTS – scientists who, when they do get students into their labs, do explain to them what they’re doing One of them’s Professor Peter Ralph; he’s the Director of the Climate Change Cluster, or C3, at our Faculty of Science, and he leads a dynamic multidisciplinary team dedicated to improving predictions about the impacts of climate change He’s an expert in aquatic photosynthesis, bio-optics, gas fluxes and chlorophyll a fluorescence, and is published widely in Nature, PLoS One, and other journals He leads the Algal Biosystems group in C3 where the algae being used for biomass production to develop more sustainable feedstock for agriculture, pharmaceutical and nutritional supplements using micro-algae, as well as re-engineering, and building with algae facades

Next to Peter is Dr Sheila Donnelly; she’s a senior lecturer in our School of Life Sciences, Faculty of Science She’s a member of the ithree Institute of infection, immunity and innovation, and the course coordinator of the biotechnology program at UTS Her research focuses on host parasite interactions It has two major streams: one is to understand the mechanism by which helminth parasites, or worms, successfully manipulate their host’s immune systems, and uses this knowledge to develop novel therapeutics for the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as diabetes type 1 Dr Donnelly has published widely in high impact scientific journals, and has been involved in commercialisation of her research findings for the benefits of human health

So please join me in welcoming our panellists [Applause] Moderator: So I’ll start off with my question, and then we’ll open to the audience So my first question to the panel will be, and somewhat alluded to in your talk, is how can we work better together, particularly in Sydney, where this is just began, so that universities and Genspace and these biohacking communities can work together and benefit from each other? So I’ll ask – I guess I’ll first open with Ellen, and then we’ll go to the other panellists Ellen: One thing we’ve done really successfully is we’ve provided a platform for people who are professional scientists to explain their work to the general public For example, Rockefeller University has a program where their graduate students and postdocs take what they’re doing and give lectures to the general public as part of their science outreach efforts

And we’ve hosted a number of those lectures And I think that that’s – it’s good practise for the scientists to kind of – I think there’s a tendency for scientists to say ‘Well, we’re going to educate you public, we’re going to – we have this knowledge and we’re going to impart it to you’ And there isn’t that much of a two-way street So one of the funniest things I ever saw in these lectures was an immunologist and a Brooklyn hipster who didn’t want to immunise his children get into a real knockdown drag-out fight And every time she would say ‘Oh, we’ve done meta studies and the person who says vaccines are bad, his stuff has been examined by the scientific community and it’s not valid’, he would bring up a conspiracy theory – he would say ‘Well, how do I know? Why should I trust this?’ And she got more and more upset, until finally the person who had invited her who was very smart said ‘Alright, look at it this way

When the tobacco companies were running rampant in the United States and they were able to control scientists who were publishing papers that said that tobacco was okay, with all of their power and their money, the highest percentage they were able to penetrate the scientific community was 50 per cent So 50 per cent of the articles said cigarettes were bad for you and 50 per cent said they were good What are the chances that the biotech companies, for whom vaccines are not even a money-making product, will have the power to sway 999 per cent of the scientists into saying something that isn’t true?’ And that argument made sense, so it was as much a learning experience for the scientist as it was for the people that were in the audience So I think that’s one thing right away that you can do, is donate your time and your effort to giving lectures and talks at these spaces, for interacting – maybe send your postdocs and graduate students to help train people in the labs or run classes and workshops, hands-on stuff

Moderator: Okay, Sheila Sheila: Totally agree, and you’ve spoken for me It’s really, I think, about engaging and communicating – I think that’s really important, and as a scientist myself, I’m guilty of saying ‘I’m going to educate everyone I’ll give a public lecture in a museum and I’ll educate’ Well actually, I think it’s about making it accessible – I think that’s what I really enjoyed about your talk; that it really makes science and the understanding of it accessible to anyone who wants it

I think that certainly in Australia – I’m not sure about America, but certainly in Australia, I find that there isn’t much out there in information from scientists, the science community is not good at communicating with the general public, and perhaps helping them understand science and understanding where we’re going with science, so I think definitely engagement with the [inaudible] community, science is absolutely critical, and for postdocs and postgrads, it’s an essential training that they have to have They’re very used to teaching in a university space and teaching science students, but to actually communicate and enhance education from a community standpoint s a very different thing I think it’s a great opportunity [inaudible] Ellen: It’s always amazing to me that it’s publicly-funded research, and yet we do so little to kind of communicate back to the public what they’re money’s paying for Sheila: Yeah, we think it’s the greater good – I’m guilty

I’m paid by research grants, and in five years I might have a treatment that might cure an illness, and that’s the end goal, but I forget that along the way I forget that I should explain why it’s exciting and how everyone can help [inaudible] Moderator: Okay, Peter Peter: I agree with both Ellen and Sheila, but I’ll take it a different way What I’m interested in the interface is both the information coming back, so yes, education coming from us to the public, but I think there’s a lot of the space that Ellen’s described that we as scientists, we can look for opportunities and novel ideas coming from the broader public and also different groups of students So some of my most exciting work has been working with design students

They don’t have a background in biology or science, but they’re just interested by the algal systems, and what they’ve come up with has kind of made me sit back, and think ‘Okay, that’s not a bad idea’ So I think it’s both education to the public to demystify, and for me with algae, I’ve got the greatest challenge –you know, everyone thinks it’s disgusting slime and I’ve got to convince them that it’s actually a useful resource that we can use for a wide range of products, but the other side of it is the broad range of innovations that I think will come from the DIY community to suggest this is a possible new application – what do you think of it? So I think two-way traffic Moderator: Okay – I’m going to open now to the audience Why don’t we start right here at the front, and right there will be second? Audience member: Hi – is it on? Andrew Thompson I was just wondering – I’m enthusiastic about genetically modified organisms and their ability to help humankind and the environment, but a lot of my friends are very, very suspicious of it

The barcoding technique that Ellen was speaking of earlier – would that be expected to be able to distinguish between a GMO and a natural organism? Ellen: The barcoding – it’s something similar, but we’re in a very interesting space now, because our first attempts to genetically modify things usually ended up with us putting extra DNA into an organism With some of the new technologies, like Crisper, you create a break in the DNA, and then the natural repair processes in the cell come back, attempt to repair it, and a lot of times they repair it in a faulty manner, and it’s a way to what we call knock out a gene, and activate it It turns out a lot of commercially interesting characteristics can be achieved by knocking genes out, so there’s a mushroom that is now going – it’s gone through the FDA in America, and it’s headed for the supermarket shelves – that doesn’t brown when you crush it It was achieved by using Crisper to knock out a gene, and it technically is not defined as GMO, because it doesn’t have any foreign DNA in it, and so the anti-GMO people are up in arms about this So it, sometimes you can tell, and sometimes you can’t, the round-up ready gene, which is something that I’m not a big fan of

Genetic engineering is just a technology – it’s neither good nor bad, and one of Monsanto’s products is a gene that you can put into plants that allows you to spray an herbicide over the crops, and the crops don’t die, but all the weeds do There’s also the BT gene, which is the opposite – it’s a natural insecticide, so you don’t have to spray anything on the crops So that one I like, but the BT gene I don’t And these are things that you often can use those techniques to tell whether or not it’s in there, but not in every case, because if you’re using Crisper and you’re knocking things out, you can’t Moderator: Okay, next question please

Audience member: Okay – Louise Sales from Friends of the Earth I wanted to thank you for a very interesting talk I find some of the citizen science projects you’re working on particularly interesting I just wanted to take issue with your statement that the public opposition to GMOs comes from a place of ignorance I mean, personally I’ve got a masters degree in biology, and I’m deeply concerned about the environmental and health impacts of GMOs, and the UK government actually found when they studied this, the more people actually find out about GMOs the more concerned they got

But leading on to my question, until now, the techniques that biohackers have had to use have been relatively minor – not very powerful, but as you’ve mentioned, new techniques such as Crisper are much more powerful and can result in much more widespread changes to microorganisms Our regulator here, the Office of [Inaudible] Technology Regulator hasn’t decided yet whether these techniques are going to be regulated as GMOs – I’m just wondering what your personal perspective is on these techniques and whether you think they’re safe for use by biohackers Ellen: I think it’s really interesting that a lot of people that are uncomfortable with GMOs are very comfortable with more what they consider traditional plants, or more natural ways of creating different varieties of plants I think what a lot of people don’t know is that some of the varieties that we enjoy today, such as ruby red grapefruit, what they used to do is plant the plans in a circle around a radioactivity source and just, when an unusual variety manifested itself, they would market it And this is genetic engineering with absolutely no understanding of where this variety came from or what it’s doing, and yet people are comfortable with that but they’re not comfortable with them ore precise genetic engineering and the more knowledge-based genetic engineering that we’re doing today, and I find that really interesting

In terms of what the capabilities of a community lab should be, and what it should be allowed to do, there are a lot of groups looking at that now I was just at a National Committee of Science committee meeting where I was asked to present, and they’re looking at regulating not only the DIY groups, but also the academic groups that are doing some of these technologies Crisper is really interesting because it’s one of the few times in my lifetime that the scientists working on something have actually called for a voluntary moratorium on it, and this was the whole gene drive idea, so I think that there’s a lot of thought being put into these technologies Part of the problem that this committee was trying to address was that the legislation takes a lot longer to write and push through than the technologies take to advance, and so the legislation is always chasing the technologies This is particularly true in the agricultural space, so all of the laws in the United States right now against agricultural engineering have to do with plant pathogens, because the original way of engineering plants was to use plant viruses, and now there are other methods of doing this that have nothing to do with plant viruses that actually don’t even count as things that are regulated, so this is a question that we’re all sort of struggling with

Moderator: Just from an Australian perspective, as you mentioned, I think our regulations are stricter, as you mentioned in your talk, and things you made be doing in a [inaudible] level 1 lab, we would probably need to go to a higher level of containment, so I think there is maybe an issue there, and I think we should talk together about what would be safe when you’re talking about DIY But if I can ask Peter – do you have an opinion on the subject? Peter: I suppose I think that Crisper needs to be discussed within the community but I think one of the ways that DIY’s going to assist this is open access, so if we have open access for our data, open access for our processes, I think that’s going to allow more transparency of what we’re doing So I think that would be my spin on it Moderator: Okay One over there, followed by one over there

So if you can go to the gentleman, and then there’s over in the row towards the back Yes sir If you can stand and mention your name please, and hopefully the microphone will work Audience member: Ellen in her talk was talking about obviously the problems with defeating negative speculations about biotechnology gone wild Obviously there’s the possibility of a biological arms race with things like Crisper, where you don’t need a lot of resources, so say smaller governments, I mean obviously you can imagine Kim Jong Il loving to get his hands on this, so if you can’t get nuclear weapons, so have biological ones to protect his little regime

So firstly that possibility of a biological arms war and what kind of regulations and protocols might hopefully prevent that, and secondly from the other side, the commercial side, you kind of alluded to it with Monsanto to some degree, and the round-up ready crops is a good example of that, and sterilisation of seeds where farmers have to buy their seeds constantly because they’re sterilised and also Monsanto could theoretically have an interest, both in creating the round-up ready crops but also maybe having financial interest in round-up itself, if you follow me, so having that wonderful vertical integration of its business model So that second part of the question is: how can we get those kinds of biotech companies to actually be involved in the public good? You mentioned vaccination doesn’t actually make money; they’re always wanting things that people have to take constantly, or those things I just alluded to, so that’s the second part of the question is you can see there’s both – what I’m alluding to is the negative factors both from a government sense and a corporate sense that are mitigating against the public good in the long run Moderator: Okay, Ellen Ellen: Wow Moderator: Maybe we’ll start with question one

Ellen: Yeah, question one That ism the whole idea of biological arms race is something that is very, very serious Our friends in Homeland Security are resigned to the fact that DNA is essentially uncontrollable, and what really they’re relying on is intelligence That’s really all you can – you can’t contain DNA the way you can nuclear material or anything like that So I think that their first line of defence is to get as many people, if they see something to say something

They’re actually very happy to have our groups training people to see what biotech looks like, so that if they ever encounter something like that, that they – they’ve spent a lot of time building bridges with us so that we could feel comfortable Moderator: So maybe I’ll just jump in here – is it possible that somebody will walk into your lab with evil intentions and come up with a bioweapon, grow up anthrax or whatever and do it under your noses Is that possible? Ellen: Well, a community lab is probably the worst place in the world to do that, because everyone always has their nose in everyone else’s business It’s a shared space; you don’t have your own lab bench or anything You’re always there with other people

The equipment is not top of the line, and I kind of take a lot of comfort in the fact that the people we interact with in the Homeland Security world aren’t worried about us at all They actually kind of roll their eyes and they’re dealing with hostile nation states They’re dealing with people that have full capability to do biological weapons, and that have, you know, scientists and institutions that they can turn towards this sort of stuff And to get overly worried about these relatively small spaces that are very public and very open, it’s kind of a waste of their resources, in a way We do not have the capability for people to work on viruses right now, because we are not biosafety level 2 – we don’t have what’s called a biosafety cabinet in our lab

Some labs do, but they’re working very hard to have limited access to those facilities just the way educational institutions do Moderator: Right Sheila, do you want to speak on this subject? Sheila: I think, from a scientific perspective of somebody who works in the genetic and engineering space, it’s also harder than you think Ellen: Well, that’s true also Most of the things don’t work when you try them

Sheila: We say it’s very easy – you can change genes, you can mutate – we say that as if it that’s very easy; it’s actually much harder than you think, and ethically I think a lot of people also don’t want to do it, so you’ve the same risk within professional scientific communities – can you be sure that every scientist working in a professional lab isn’t going to go off and develop a superbug? It is harder scientifically than you think, and as Ellen has alluded to, most of these community labs operate at what’s called a BL1 or PC1 here in Australia – it starts off with very non-pathogenic organisms, it’s in the open space, things become contaminated very easily It’s very, very challenging in those spaces, as it is in a professional lab, to genetically engineer a superbug Moderator: I think to give others a chance, we’re going to leave one question for you, and if we have time we’ll go back There’s a question over here, and then you’ll be next Just over there, yes

Audience member: Thanks for being here My name’s Shaun Weaver My question is, in regards to Genspace, do you think that any other endeavours in other fields have a chance to influence education and how accessible it is, the costs to general public or kind of change the way education’s thought of, delivered? Sheila: Do you mind if I jump in? I know you want to talk to Ellen … so just in terms of how we teach, actually, in universities we are being quite influenced by what people are doing in community labs I think as Ellen alluded to in her talk, is in a typical scientific lab in a university – you come in, you put things in tubes, you get the result and you leave, and that’s supposed to teach students about science But what we’re learning from the community lab space, as Ellen said, people are coming in with their own questions, so can we adopt that style of investigation within the university space? So I think the hunger for science within the community as a whole, and their willingness to delve into these community spaces is actually helping us to develop better education, better delivery of science, certainly within the university space

Ellen: The whole idea of education is starting to break down, especially with all the online resources now Informal education is often taking the place of formal education Biotech is a particularly difficult area, because it’s almost like an apprenticeship Some of the early people in the field acted as if the knowledge was being kept from them somehow by the institution, and I like to liken it, you know, sure, I’d like to be in the pit crew of a Formula 1 race car – why aren’t you letting me in the pit crew? But in order to do that, you need to apprentice yourself to an expert for several years, and just the way, you know, that has to happen in that situation, that’s what a PhD is – you’re going into a lab and you’re sort of being an apprentice, and the DIY spaces, if you have enough knowledge in the space, can act to do that, but it’s still very difficult to do a complete end run around the system, particularly if you’re starting a company It’s getting a little bit different now that people are willing to fund people that don’t have PhDs when they have good ideas, but it is going to be a little hard I think

Moderator: Just to jump in, I work with a lot of students in the bio-innovation space, and what you find is yeah, young people can come up with ideas, but they don’t have the depth of understanding that someone with a PhD would have So don’t get confused to think people that go through Ellen’s type of set-up will have the qualifications of someone who completes a PhD – it’s a totally different level of understanding So we’ll move to two more questions we have time for Yes sir Audience member: Justin Ashworth – I’m a postdoc here in C3

Great talk I have a question in regards to biosecurity again So nucleic acids are basically a kind of digital information, and they’re quite specific, so are you auditing the kinds of nucleic acids that are going thorough your lab, or the suppliers, screening for this primer, for example, might be used – matches some pathogen Is this happening? Ellen: The suppliers are The FBI reached out a few years ago to everybody in the synthetic biology community, so the academics, the companies, and one of the big issues was are you screening the sequences that you're providing for people

And so pretty much most of the companies in the world are using a screening system to see whether or not the DNA that they’re manufacturing is from a pathogen, say, smallpox or something, and then not filling the order if they get a hit The thing is, though, the technology to make DNA is also being democratised, and there may be some places on earth that aren’t really interested in being players on the world stage, and China is a country that comes up a lot, that supposedly they’re sort of these mum and pop DNA shops in China that will manufacture things for you and don’t really care about international cooperation, but I don’t have any direct knowledge of that I know all the companies in the United States do a screening process Moderator: Okay, one more question Over to you sir

Audience member: Hi I really appreciated the talk tonight as well I want to make a quick comment and then turn that into a question I think the best defence against the threat of bad guys is to create more good guys, and I think you are the good guys, and you know, the democratisation that you talk about, about bringing science into the community and creating more interest, I think that is the best way of doing it But that leads me to wonder if – you made a comment in your talk that, or you commented that someone had answered, ‘I’m doing science; I’m not taking a position here

’ But I wonder if there’s an opportunity to get the community and to get the students and the people coming into the labs to think about these things and to think about the good guy response to these types of things I’m just curious as to what you think about that and if there is something there Ellen: I think that’s every biohacker’s fantasy – that some evil person does something and the biohackers save the world by coming up with a vaccine or something There are actually some interesting projects, which are very speculative and not – they’re not being taken to the end; they’re just being done to see whether it can be done, of diabetics creating their own insulin, or people creating their own hormones – sort of the same way that I’m really happy that I know how to garden, and I feel like if the apocalypse comes, I know which vegetables are going to produce a lot of calories, just like the guy in that Martian movie I think that that’s kind of in the back of the minds of a lot of people, and I think it’s good – it’s very, it’s sort of like being self sufficient, being able to do the MacGyver and wire the electricity and do the genetic engineering and everything else

I don’t know I hope it never comes to pass in that way, but I think it’s definitely a good way to get the general public thinking about it and get them involved Moderator: Okay, so I’d like to end by first of all thanking our three panellists and speaker, Ellen Jorgensen, first of all, thank you very much [Applause] Moderator: Dr Sheila Donnelly [Applause] Moderator: And Professor Peter Ralph

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