Citizen scientists don lab coats at Seattle’s first DIY biolab
Want to tinker with DNA, probe the workings of yeast or simply explore the microscopic world in a drop of pond scum? HiveBio provides a place for amateur bioscientists to discover, experiment and learn.
Seattle Times science reporter
Remember how cool science was when you were a kid?
Katriona Guthrie-Honea is hoping to rekindle that thrill for people of all ages with Seattle’s first do-it-yourself biotech lab.
HiveBio, which opened its doors in mid-October, is a place where anyone can slip on a lab coat and brew up a batch of nontoxic bacteria, tinker with DNA or simply explore the microscopic world in a drop of pond scum.
“I get excited every time I come here,” said Guthrie-Honea, the lab’s 17-year-old co-founder. “DIY science is like having an adventure.”
With a volunteer staff and board that includes several Ph.D. scientists and biotech leaders, HiveBio is the latest in a growing list of community labs across the country.
Propelled by the creativity of hacker culture and energized by a surge in citizen science projects, the DIYbio movement gives amateurs the chance to explore, experiment and learn outside the traditional bounds of academia.
Though HiveBio is just getting off the ground, the lab has already attracted a lineup of local experts to present classes and workshops on everything from basic laboratory techniques to intellectual-property law.
To use the facilities, members pay monthly fees that start at $54, or a drop-in fee of $15 per visit.
It’s kind of like joining a gym, Guthrie-Honea explained. But instead of sweating through a spin class, you can learn how to dissect a sheep’s brain or probe your own genes.
The idea of ordinary people cloning microbes and manipulating DNA in largely unregulated labs can seem appealing or appalling, depending on your perspective.
The FBI was concerned enough to host conferences with so-called biohackers across the country in order to understand what the labs are up to and head off any chance that terrorists might infiltrate for nefarious purposes. “It’s along the lines of a ‘see something, say something’ campaign,” Seattle FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich wrote in an email.
But HiveBio’s founders and other proponents find those fears overblown. Most community labs are no more sophisticated than a well-equipped high-school lab, said Todd Kuiken, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which is tracking the DIYbio phenomenon and helped draw up a code of conduct.
“A lot of the press out there is: ‘Oh my God! Somebody in these community labs or in their basement is recreating the polio virus,’ ” he said. “But people don’t realize how hard that would be to do, even if you had a million dollars worth of equipment.”
Given their current capabilities, it’s also not likely that community labs will be the source of major scientific or technological breakthroughs.
“Our objective is not to create the next Microsoft,” said Elizabeth Scallon, who helps nurture startup companies through her job at the University of Washington and volunteers as HiveBio’s chief operations officer. “If we impact individuals and energize the community about science, we’ve really achieved our mission.”
DIYbio is so new, it’s hard to know what the movement will accomplish, or even whether it will survive. The first community lab opened in Brooklyn in 2010. According to DIYbio.org, North America now has 20, from Nashville to Los Angeles.
“I think DIYbio is part of a larger citizen-science movement,” Kuiken said.
Online research projects like Galaxy Zoo and Foldit have enlisted thousands of laypeople to search the skies for astronomical features and unravel the structure of proteins. Thanks to the falling cost of equipment, it’s now conceivable for citizen scientists to go even further and establish their own labs.
But like HiveBio, most operate on a shoestring budget.
Guthrie-Honea and co-founder Bergen McMurray raised nearly $6,500 in seed money through Microryza, a science crowdfunding site. They’ve just launched a second campaign to raise $6,588 for scholarships and discounted classes.
HiveBio is located near the UW at the Talaris Conference Center, which gave the group a good deal on rent. The shelves that line the walls in the 800-square-foot space are stacked with pipettes, glass flasks and other equipment, most of it salvaged from local biotech companies that went out of business.
There’s a refrigerator, freezer and microscope. There’s also an old PCR machine — a mainstay of molecular biology used to churn out multiple copies of genes.
The list of what the lab doesn’t have is even longer. Instead of an autoclave, there’s a pressure cooker to sterilize glassware. A decent centrifuge is on the team’s wish list, along with a DNA sequencer.
But part of the fun of DIY science is cobbling together your own equipment and figuring out how to hack around problems, said McMurray, HiveBio’s CEO.
In that spirit, the most popular class so far explains how to convert a cellphone into a microscope.
All science stems from curiosity, McMurray pointed out, and it was curiosity — coupled with frustration — that independently inspired both her and Guthrie-Honea to explore the possibility of a community lab in Seattle.
With a laser physicist for a dad, Guthrie-Honea grew up steeped in science. But her ambitions soon outstripped the facilities at Ingraham High School, where she’s a junior. She contacted nearly 200 labs and scientists, looking for a place to continue working on a project that won her top honors at a local biotech expo.
Though Guthrie-Honea eventually landed an internship at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, her experience underscored how hard it is for nonscientists to get hands-on experience.
McMurray, 34, is even more of a science outsider. A single mom, she studied design and political science until her money ran out. She works as a photo editor for an online shopping site. But a former stint as an illustrator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science helped ignite a passion for neuroscience.
Among McMurray’s many tattoos are the molecular structure of the “love hormone” oxytocin and an equation that describes the electrical potential of nerve cells.
But passion doesn’t translate into access in the world of biotech. The only sure way to get in the door of a laboratory is to work there as a researcher, student or technician.
McMurray wanted a community lab that would open those doors to everyone, and was excited to hear through others that Guthrie-Honea had the same idea.
“We’re in the business of removing barriers,” McMurray said.
One of the first projects planned for the lab will explore the prevalence of a genetic sequence that may be more common in people prone to take risks and those with ADHD. Participants will be able to sample and analyze their own DNA, said Michal Galdzicki, a UW postdoctoral researcher who serves as HiveBio’s chief science officer.
Education director Sandlin Seguin, a former microbiologist, plans to establish cultures of the bacteria in yogurt that members can use to practice lab techniques, or experiment with.
“We want to make it really easy for people to come to the lab, get their hands wet and start to feel confident in the lab space,” she said.
No hazardous chemicals or dangerous microbes are allowed at HiveBio, and every project must be approved unanimously by a safety and ethics board that includes the director of The Institute for Systems Biology — an independent Seattle research center — a UW bioengineering professor, and two local biotech founders.
That should help HiveBio avoid the type of controversy that surrounds a California project to genetically engineer glowing plants. To the dismay of environmental groups, the amateur scientists behind the project plan to sell plants and give free seeds to backers who collectively donated nearly $500,000 to their Kickstarter campaign.
Under current regulations, the project is legal, Kuiken pointed out. But both Kickstarter and BioCurious, the San Francisco-area DIYbio lab where the project originated, have distanced themselves from it and adopted rules that prohibit distribution of genetically engineered organisms.
For now, the folks at HiveBio are more concerned with getting their facility up and running, applying for grants and nonprofit status, and attracting paying members. Only three have signed up so far, though dozens of people have participated in classes.
The lab may be fueled by idealism, but its long-term fate will hinge on funding, Galdzicki said. “The financial resources need to be there to enable a lot of these dreams.”
Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org