Why The DIYBio Lab Is The New Darkroom

This is the second in a series of posts about my work on DIYBio. The initial post has some background and can be found here.

A popular (and sexy) comparison for DIYBio is with the Homebrew Computer Club. One often reads that DIYBio is at the same point in its development as the HCC was just prior to the IBM PC i.e. it is 1978 in the lab and a bright new industry is developing among hobbyists. Maybe, but where is the the small business accounting market that propelled the PC industry and what might serve as the Visicalc of DIYBio?

The going answer to this question is personalized medicine powered by a) cheap DNA sequencing and b) Quantified Self style data collection. These two phenomena are thought to be leading directly to a DIY approach to medical treatment which, similar to the way spreadsheets brought accounting power tools to the masses, would disrupt the medical establishment by putting new tools in the hands of amateurs and thus inaugurate a new industry. See this idea expressed just after 1:30 and 7:30 into the recent DIYBio TED Talk.

Another popular thought is that DIYBio is a type of hacking similar to the tenants and techniques of software hacking. Here the comparison is between hacking computer code and hacking DNA, with the political tenants of hacking extended to “biohackers” and by extension from computer software to human wetwear.

Yet another popular comparison, this time from professional synthetic biologists, is to the birth of synthetic chemistry in the 19th century. In this view a new industry is coming into view that will bend DNA to human ends much as the synthetic dye industry bent benzene to human ends in the 19th century.

Let me set aside the latter two views of DIYBio for a later post about concepts, conceits and metaphors in synthetic biology, and focus for a bit on the first view of DIYBio.

How Medicine is Not like Accounting

DNA sequencing is surely getting cheaper, but even a $1,000 genome (more on this idea in a later post) doesn’t answer complex medical questions with much confidence. The main tool here is the Genomic Wide Association Study, which is a fancy name for statistical induction over large datasets. Big data for health care, in other words. Just like the big data (and data mining) that have driven the second and third wave of internet companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook. From custom ads to recommendation engines statistical induction hooked to visuals is enjoying a high tide.

I enjoy the Amazon recommendation engine and have purchased things I would not have been aware of otherwise, but I wouldn’t have an organ removed because people with similar habits/SNPs/etc.. have done so in the past. For that to occur I require a different type of knowledge to be produced. The kind that is already produced by a medical doctor’s examination and clinical tests.

What statistical induction over big data is good for (whether this is in GWAS, at Amazon or in the HRAF files) is finding areas that might benefit by more exacting inquiry. And perhaps there is a role for data mining DNA, but it won’t in directly deciding which medical procedures to perform. Not to revisit the Hobbes/Boyle debate, but the knowledge produce by GWAS is simply not exact enough for clinical certainty.

My point here is that the medical field is not accounting. The problems are not cut and dry and there is no easy one-to-one translation from an analog process to a comparable digital process.

How Amateur Labs are similar to Darkrooms

I think a more useful historical antecedent for the DIYBio lab is the photographic darkroom. Despite the laboratory being associated with the kitchen (stemming from the early alchemist forward) and the darkroom with the bathroom (easier to light proof) they share a common thread. Both are spaces where art, science and commerce mix. Perhaps more importantly, like a DIYBio laboratory, the darkroom was a space for disinterested experimentation with a chemical process, that cross-cut scientific, artistic, social and moral boundaries. Just like this thought experiment.

When the positive/negative process replaced the daguerreotype process it opened the way for the establishment of amateur photography using a common battery of chemical reagents and an accepted, but often elaborated upon, set of protocols. Similarly, transforming plasmids into E.coli with a set of standard, but often elaborated upon, set of protocols has emerged as the basic process undertaken in DIYBio labs.

Further, the process of transforming a photographic negative into a positive print around the turn of the last century required about the same amount of ingenuity, equipment and knowledge as transforming a plasmid into E.Coli does today. And, many of the problems facing DIYBio labs are similar to those facing darkroom builders one hundred years ago. Equipment had to be created, protocols worked up, and new ways of working had to be invented then diffused throughout the burgeoning group of darkroom enthusiasts. Also like a darkroom, DIYBio is potentially, but not necessarily dangerous.

Between 1890 and the 1930’s interest in photography exploded as professionals and their daguerreotype process gave way to amateurs using film. By the end of the 1930s the B&W darkroom assumed the shape it still retains today. At the height of its popularity, there were amateur photography clubs with community darkrooms for use by members, temporary darkrooms in bathrooms, teaching darkrooms in colleges and high schools, commercial darkrooms in business districts and experimental darkrooms in numerous bathrooms and kitchens around the world.

The DIYBio laboratory is still in its infancy, but there is every reason to think that it will be in the future what the darkroom was in the past; a space where interested amateurs will invent new forms of art and commerce that will push and challenge boundaries we experience today as “natural.”