Chapter 1. Welcome to BioCoder

Mike Loukides

O'Reilly Media

Welcome to the readers, welcome to the editors, welcome to the contributors. We’re all glad to have you along for this trip. A few words on what this is for, how it started, and perhaps where it’s headed. Though we don’t really know where it’s headed. We’ll find that out on the journey.

I’ve been following biology for a few years now. I’m not a biologist, and haven’t taken biology since 7th or 8th grade, over 40 years ago. But I have watched it from a distance, and increasingly, it feels to me like something that’s about to explode: it feels a lot like computing did in 1975, before there were PCs, but when a friend of mine got an 8008 and a used teletype and built a computer in his dorm room. That computing event signaled a lot of things. In '75, computing was arguably already 25 years old. But up to that point, it had been done by people with PhDs, people who wore white lab coats, people who had inconceivably large amounts of funding and built machines the size of houses. What my friend did was demonstrate that computing wasn’t the property of a priesthood with lab coats: it was something that anyone could do.

We’re now seeing that same shift in biology. Students are making glowing E. coli, both at community labs like Genspace and BioCurious and in high schools. iGEM exposes thousands to the idea of building with standard biological parts. We’re seeing community laboratories spring up all over the world: literally on every continent except Antarctica. Experiments that formerly required a fully equipped laboratory with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment can now be done in a community hackerspace, equipped with little more than a homemade PCR machine and centrifuge powered by a Dremel tool. We’re discarding the lab coats (if not the purple rubber gloves).

One unfortunate theme has stood out in my many conversations with biologists, though: "Yeah, I think something is happening in Hoboken (or Austin, or Juneau, or Calgary), but I don’t know what." While there is a large and active biohacking community, it’s poorly connected. The players don’t know who each other are and what’s going on across the community. It’s symptomatic that one of the world’s largest gatherings of DIY biologists was organized by the FBI. They were friendly, but that’s not the issue: if it takes the FBI to bring us together, we aren’t talking to each other enough.

That’s the problem we’re fixing with BioCoder. BioCoder is a newsletter for synthetic biologists, DIY biologists, neuro biologists—anyone who’s interested in what’s happening outside the standard academic and industrial laboratories. We plan to include:

Not all of the above, not in every issue. But as much as we can. We’d like to publish BioCoder quarterly. Although the first issues are free, we’d eventually like this to become self-sustaining.

To do that, of course, we’ll need contributions. Send a note to me or Nina DiPrimio, our volunteer editor, and we’ll set you up. If you’re unsure whether your idea is good enough—it probably is, but feel free to pitch an idea before writing it up.

Thanks again. I’m thrilled to see our first issue, and I’m looking forward to the second.