Chapter 5. DIYbio Around the World

Noah Most

The customs officer raised an eyebrow. I carefully explained the nature of my stay in Canada. My arrival in Victoria on July 26th represented the first stop on a year-long worldwide tour of do-it-yourself biology (DIYbio). I’ll get my hands dirty in community biolabs as well as examine the social, ethical, and legal questions that are tied to the movement. It just may not be the easiest thing to explain when crossing a border.

I graduated last May from Grinnell College in Iowa where I studied biology, economics, and entrepreneurship. As I was exploring synthetic biology, I stumbled upon DIYbio and was immediately captivated; it seemed to fuse all my interests together beautifully. I applied for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which allows for a year of independent study outside the United States. My proposal generated more odd looks—this time a good thing—and was just weird enough to be accepted. As a result, I’ll be sharing my experiences as I visit different DIYbio groups around the globe, spanning from the United Kingdom to Indonesia.

Canada made for an obvious first stop, and Derek Jacoby, founding member of the Victoria Makerspace, welcomed me to my inaugural lab. Immediately, I was thrown into an introductory class where the students made E. coli express green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish species. As a summer fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, I had done this lab once before, except this time the other participants weren’t undergraduates. Instead, I was joined by a woman with a background in communications, two high school students, a network specialist, and an onlooking real estate developer. Everyone was pleased to see their own colonies glow under a UV lamp. Genetic engineering by amateurs—it’s not just something people envision in TED talks.

For an independent project, I am exploring DNA origami, which may have profound implications for DNA nanotechnology. This field was established in 2006 by Paul Rothemund, who figured out that a long, single-stranded DNA "scaffold" can be guided to fold with many different "staple" strands, which allows the generation of highly specific 2- and 3D nanostructures.[1] Essentially, if you can conceive of a shape, you can make it out of DNA, and all sorts of fascinating applications are being explored.

For example, Douglas, Bachelet, and Church built a nanorobot for delivery of molecular cargo.[2] Essentially like a clam shell, the inside features binding sites for cargo, such as an anti-cancer drug. The clam shell is locked with an aptamer that’s bound to a partially complementary strand. When this aptamer encounters its target molecule, it preferentially binds to it, opening the lock. That target molecule, ingeniously, can be a protein found on the outside of cancerous cells. Thus, the clam shell releases its molecular payload upon just the bad guys that need to be killed. Such specificity may dramatically reduce the toxicity of the drugs. For my own project, I designed a proof-of-principle 2D light bulb, which Bachelet was kind enough to review. Next, I’ll build a 3D design.

To what extent is DNA origami feasible for DIY biologists? There are questions as to whether DNA origami can be made cost accessible, but the method does have some advantages. First, with student status, the design software caDNAno, built on top of Autodesk’s Maya 2012, is free. Second, the whole shebang is done in a one-pot reaction, so reagent costs are minimal. Third, the single-stranded scaffold is commonly the M13mp18 virus; three trillion copies can be purchased for about $30.[3]

The largest cost limitation to building the nanostructure are the oligonucleotide staples. Fortunately, in many cases, expensive oligonucleotide purification is unnecessary.[4] More typically, a set of staples is likely around $700 at the 25 nmol scale.

DNA origami requires access to an atomic force microscope for 2D imaging or a transmission electron microscope for 3D imaging. Microscope access may be the largest obstacle for any DIY effort. Fortunately, the Victoria Makerspace is working out access to these microscopes through an agreement with a local university, so it is conceivable that others can come to similar arrangements.

It is my hope that this project will elucidate DNA origami’s potential for DIYbio. Even if the wet work of DNA origami is too costly for many groups, the field is still idea- and design-accessible. Like with iGEM, undergraduates are already forming teams, producing designs, and executing projects through the BIOMOD competition. I have compressed a crash course in DNA origami to 20 minutes, and it will be followed up by another lesson in caDNAno.

By the time of my next entry, I will have crossed the Atlantic and joined the Manchester Digital Laboratory in the United Kingdom. I’ll report on a DNA barcoding project as well as my work exploring the social, ethical, and legal issues that surround DIYbio. As I travel, I’ll begin to develop an understanding of the differences that exist between DIYbio groups and the environments in which they exist. How do DIYbio groups differ in their interests and projects? How do legal considerations change? How do local mores affect public perception of DIYbio and GMOs? I will share what I find as I continue my global voyage.



[1] Rothemund, P. W. "Folding DNA to create nanoscale shapes and patterns." Nature, 440(7082) (2006): 297–302.

[2] Douglas, Shawn M., Ido Bachelet, and George M. Church. "A logic-gated nanorobot for targeted transport of molecular payloads." Science 335.6070 (2012): 831–834.

[3] Rothemund, P. W. "Design of DNA origami." In Proceedings of the 2005 IEEE/ACM International conference on Computer-aided design. IEEE Computer Society, May 2005: 471–478.

[4] Rothemund, P. W. "Folding DNA to create nanoscale shapes and patterns." Nature 440(7082) (2006): 297–302.