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Outlaw Biology at UCLA Symposium

January 29, 2010


This cowboy hat is acid-proof and recommended diybio safety-wear.

Chris Kelty just kicked out the Outlaw Biology Symposium here at the N(c)SI center at UCLA. “Outlaw is not the same thing as criminal,” he said.

Marcus Wohlson and I live-blogged it here, with help from Charles Fracchia.

There is a live stream.

Some of us are taking living notes here:

Photos here:


Each panelist gets 2 slides. Starting w/ Jason Bobe‘s 2nd, I’ll try to take a picture of each one.

Hugh Reinhoff – tons of sequencing and searching for the mutation causing his daughters’s disease, narrowing in on the target. May start biochemistry in mice models soon.

Philip Lukeman – made 100nm wide gear out of DNA origami. Working on nanoscale devices. Demoing open-source software tomorrow that takes in a drawing and spits out oligo strings that will self-assemble via the origami techniques into the shape. I’m thinking… we should fold some DNA into cool shapes and send the results to ASPEX for free electron microscopy.

Meredith Patterson – “work in linguistics, data mining, computer security, and biology all have something in common: finding patterns.” She shows a picture of Lactobacteria acidophilus. “Come to the demo tomorrow to get some of it’s plasmids.” She mentioned the crypto-crusade of the cypherpunks in the ’90s and read from an updated cypherpunk manifesto, roughly “biohackers are dedicated to putting the tools of scientific enquiry into the hands of everyone. Come, let us research together.”

Gaymon Bennett – an ethicist and theologian focused on synthetic biology, “how is biotechnology contributing to the good forms of life?” Bios Technika. “I think the kind of moral life we would be engaging in when doing diybio is very different from the kind of moral life one would engage in when doing big bio.”

Victoria Vesna – artist at UCLA.
Visiting professor at Parson’s School of Design

Gravitated toward university setting because bioartists have had trouble finding a place in the gallery system. After arriving, she says she “started slowly moving toward the other side of campus [i.e. toward science labs].” Not only because there were “more money and toys there,” she said, but because it was “like walking into the most amazing sculpture studios.”

Shows a slide of piece she did called “Blue Morph”. The flashes of light were translated into sound, flashes from the metamorphasis of a blue morpho caterpillar into a butterfly.

She talked about her new HOX project. She’s thinking about turnining different animal’s homebox gene’s into sounds, or taking samples and making them into poker chips (since Chris is from Nevada). I think she should use our k12 E. coli button technique to make

The way art is done, taught, critiqued has also changed. Looking for public input for next HOX project: The best idea gets $1,000! Comment and suggest at

Roger Brent – Badass Basic Scientist. Ran the Molecular Science Institute,/a>. Drew Endy and Rob Carlson were hanging out there in the early 2000s.

“We’re kind of trying to map some formalism from the understanding of the physicis of information, information theory, back onto molecular components.”

Shows slide of Rolling Stone article on 1975 Asilomar conference (famed attempt to self-regulate then-new recombinant DNA technology): “The Pandora’s Box Congress: 140 Scientists Ask: Now that We Can Rewrite the Genetic Code What Are We Going to Say?” Jokes about the lack of diversity: “too much male facial hair on display.”

Since Asilomar, we’ve done a lot. Mentions Lai et al 2006 – Omega-3 pigs, “bacon that’s good for your heart!”

“In 1975, there were effectively 300 people hacking DNA. In 2010, >350,000 who have hacked DNA in the last 10 years. In 2025? Millions.” Why? Well, there are great informational resources today. For instance, Current Protocols in Molecular Biology and it’s rival, Molecular Cloning, as well as a Yakuza bootleg cloning book from Japan.

>100,000 of these manuals sold in 2002. >1,000,000 in 2010. And in China? And that’s totally ignoring China!

Points out that since 1975, very few deaths have been attributed to recombinant DNA technology. In the “American case,” he says, those have mostly been due to gene therapy performed by “cowboy docs.”

Still, suggests that the rapid expansion in accessibility of biotechnologies suggests that, regarding Asilomar, “this particular self-governance regime has passed its sell-by date.”

“Dynamite makes all men equal, and therefore makes them free” — Albert Parsons, 1887. “If anyone reading this has any differences at all with what Parsons meant by it… then we need to start a dialogue. The locus of technology is not hardware. It’s the people. Let’s talk.”

Intermission Time

Questions & Answers

What technologies would be enabling for DIYbiologists?

Lukeman: low-cost atomic force microscope and a low-cost electron microscope.

Patterson: All imaging equipment! I would kill for an fMRI.

Brent: one way to bound this question is to consider what you’re trying to acheive. If you are trying to do microbial synthetic biology, you could build a great lab for around a million dollars!

Rienhoff: I built a PCR lab for $5000. “It’s not that expensive if you have a relatively narrow goal of characterizing genes.”

Bobe points to Joseph Jackson in the front row with his LavaAmp _ a low-cost pocket-sized thermocycler _ to make the point that DIY biologists are well at work on building cheaper versions of lab gear to increase accessibility.

Vecca: We should open university labs to the equiptment. And donate/recycle the 3-year-old used equipment to establish public labs.

Patterson: Yeah! I love

Audience: ScienceShops, like in Europe!

Me: any tools that speed up the interaction with biological devices. Interactivity is key to play, and play is key to intuition, and intuition is key to innovation.

Lukeman: Doing stuff in silica versus doing stuff in the real world is different. “There will always be speed limits to doing stuff in the real world.” (Narrator: let’s make an xbox game of “the inner life of the cell” then)

Patterson: The hackerspace movement!

Narrator: Hackerspaces are becoming “centers of inquiry for anyone who just wants to walk in.

Discussion turns to the patient-driven research movement.

In the audience is Alice Wexler of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, which began four decades ago as a family effort to trace the genetic origins of Huntington’s disease.

Audience: Why are we interested in diybio? Is it for entertainment, or for survival? I started a small lab for artists at UCI. But in the end, we didn’t have the people power. I’m an artist. I didn’t have enough time to maintain the equipment and to figure everything out. So where are the situations where the Space and Equipment and People come together? I see a lot of really cool geeks here… but I see everyone alone. Working in isolation.

Brent: Well, I just want to say a person who wants to do art would be welcome in my lab.

Rienhoff: It might seem like a solitary activity, but I am connected to a very large community. I don’t feel like I am working in isolation.

Me: Roger, could you describe a page in a cloning manual and how much those publications cost?

Brent: Full subscription to “Current Protocols” used to run $1,200 a year. Anyone in UC system has access electroincally. Everyone knows someone.

Me: And there are torrents! But my point is that these protocols are often just a little too technical or telegraphic for the beginner to actually be able to use them. They are written for grad students. We need new manuals. We need books with the same technicality but written for high school students.

Bennett: The real test is to go home and boot up our Internet and see if we can learn how to do this. But why should you care about diybio? Find this essay: Weber’s Science as a Vocation. Science is hard and takes incredible enthusiasm and drive. We need to think about the why! It’s not just to do something cool. (Narrator: we might have missed the nuance of his discourse).

Audience: a sociologist, compares “outlaw biologists” to buffalo soldiers, i.e. outsiders who at the same time have connections to powerful institutions. Asks panelists to reflect on connection.

Rienhoff: When you’re outside the institution, you’re allowed to speculate and connect. The dots can be much farther apart. You can go way out and not take professional risks doing that. Being on the outside is “stretching the scientific method.”

Patterson: You have the freedom to look into questions that haven’t seen a lot of focus because projects would generally benefit marginal populations. Much of the resistance I’ve seen to my work comes from “upper-class liberal white people” who fear genetic engineering but lack sensitivity and awareness to its potential to benefit the poor and marginalized.

Lukeman: Who remembers “The Island of the Misfit Toys?” I think a bunch of the scientists you see here could be described as being from the island of the misfit toys. Scientists are not homogeneous, but often “deeply weird” people who have useful and not-so-useful ideas.

Bennett: A concrete example of the adjacencies between big bio and so-called diybio: consider the work of iGEM teams. It’s generating new kinds of participation, proliferating around the world. Getting some purchase on the movent among and across these places… should help us answer the question.

Audience: As exciting as outlaw projects are for lowering barriers to participation, how do you envision the work changing the interaction of the broader public with the science?

Meredith: If I could llive in my ideal world, it would be one in which people actively realized how much they use the scientific method every day.

Brent: Americans idolize the autodidact, the tinkerer, the Thomas Edisons. If biohacking captures the public imagination, regardless of technological achievement, a broader dialogue about science will be opened.

Bennett: The kinds of things we can do well in labs today can seem boring. What goes on at the bench every day is not the grand story about the human genome and the code of codes changing your life. A real problem: Combining a frank discussion of what we can and can’t do with fostering enthusiasm for trying.

Lukeman: Hard to convey to people what we’re doing without resorting to the five-minute montage. (a la CSI).

The conversation switches to citizen science

Audience: I want to point out (any maybe ?), and tell you that I’m going to a citizen science literacy conference later this year run by What messages do you want me to bring to that conference?

Kelty: I encourage you to just focus on enabling citizen science. The literacy will follow.

Audience: I am a gerontologist here at UCLA. Most citizens don’t have any science understanding at all… but I think it’s changing. Someday there will be science experts who are high school students. Freeman Dyson’s Domesticating Biotechnology.

Jankowski: I think we would all agree: biology is hard. We’ve talked about the available electronic resources, and the cheap ways at getting lab equipment. So let’s talk about how to develop access to experts who can teach us.

Fracchia: We’re running periodic classes at the bosslab in Boston.

Littrell: And tomorrow we’re starting DIYbio-SF here.

Audience: We’ve talked a lot about DIYbio practice, but I’m more interested in the theory. I’m a scholar who studies 19th century renegade scientists. I want to know what the big ideas are or will be coming out of this community and knocking on the door of orthodox science.

Lukeman: Outlaws don’t need your stinkin’ metaphysics.


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