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DIY Biology: From Basement to Biolab

When you think "Do-it-Yourself" (DIY), you probably think about home renovations, or car repair, or that time your dad tried to fix the leaky kitchen sink and ended up ankle-deep in water while your mom called the plumber. What you probably don't think is "DIY biology". Yet, it's a thing. A very big thing, and it's growing fast.

On March 16, 2016, the Public Health Agency of Canada hosted the first-ever Canadian DIY Biology Summit, bringing together the DIY biology community, academics and federal government departments to discuss how the DIY movement is affecting science and innovation in Canada and globally. But before we get to that, let's take a closer look at DIY biology, how it works, and the potential impacts on public health in Canada.

Technology is exploding!

By exploding, we don't mean that time you blew up the lab at school, we mean technology is advancing at a rapid pace. (Remember your first cell phone? *Shudder.) As it advances, it also becomes cheaper and easier to get.

All of this cheap and easy tech has given rise to a whole new community of DIY biologists (also commonly known as biohackers, DIYers, or citizen scientists) working outside of traditional labs. These people are often professional scientists and engineers, and even students, amateurs and hobbyists.

A DIY bio-graphy

The network of DIY biologists began to take shape when was founded in the U.S. in 2008. Since then, the community has grown to 2,000 registered members (and counting) with 59 groups in 30 countries. In Canada, there are active DIY biology groups in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria.

Most DIYers are working on cheaper and simpler solutions to global health, environmental and social problems. Some work out of a home lab, while others set up community labs.

For example, a DIY biologist might create a mobile, real-time biosensor that detects contaminants in water. Or they might grow human cells on apples to examine its potential use in regenerative medicine.

DIY bio and public health

The main public health consideration for DIYers is biosafety (proper handling or storing of human and animal pathogens and toxins) and biosecurity (preventing the intentional introduction of harmful organisms to human, animal and plant life).

Essentially, it's important to make sure proper training and lab safety procedures are in place. The most applicable Canadian legislation is the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act (HPTA), which forms the basis for the national safety and security program to protect the health and safety of the public against risks posed by human pathogens. DIY biologists who are looking to conduct experiments with harmful human pathogens or toxins may need to apply for a license under the HPTA, depending on the type of experiment they are doing.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is taking a balanced approach when it comes to regulating DIY biology: protecting public health and safety from harmful pathogens and toxins, while working to foster vibrant and innovative Canadian research.

Canadian DIY Biology Summit

The first-ever Canadian DIY Biology Summit took place on March 16, 2016. It included sessions on the current DIY biology landscape in Canada, building a culture of safety, and opportunities for collaboration between DIYers, universities and science-based government departments and agencies. (See full list of participants below.) The Summit ended with a DIY Biology Fair showcasing interactive demos and displays of DIY molecular biology kits, experimental designs, robotics and equipment, and bioart. Here are a few of the exhibits.

Pelling Labs
Pelling Labs and their experiment with apples and human tissue.

Wheeling Microfluids
Wheeler Microfluids' lab on a chip.

Brico Bio
Brico Bio and their portable DIY Bio "Bento Lab"

Let bio-gones be bio-gones

In the past, DIY biology has been frowned upon as amateurs conducting unsafe experiments in their basements. But today, that perception is changing - DIYers are growing in number and doing some really amazing science. They're here to stay, and traditional scientific organizations have chosen to work with them in pursuit of scientific excellence. The Public Health Agency of Canada is committed to supporting scientific innovation in Canada, and invites you to learn more about both DIY biology and the federal government's role in biosafety and security.

Canadian DIY Biology Summit participants:

  • Pelling Labs
  • Synbiota
  • Open Science Network
  • FREDsense Technologies
  • Artengine
  • Spiderwort
  • Makerspace North
  • University of Lethbridge (SYNBRIDGE Maker Space)
  • McGill University
  • University of Ottawa
  • University of Toronto
  • University of British Columbia
  • Concordia University
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