Cracking open the lab doors

Do-it-yourself biologists band together in Baltimore

For most Americans, exposure to science laboratories ended in high school or college. In those early science classes, students were led through standard, cookbook protocols and arrived at expected outcomes. Few were able to perform authentic research or pursue open-ended questions. The joy of actual discovery was reserved for those who went to graduate school and gained professional-level laboratory access. But what if there were a venue that allowed the public to engage in the scientific process, encouraged nonscientists to ask questions that professional scientists ask, and offered equipment and guidance that made open-ended science experiments a reality for everyone?

Marissa Sumathipala, shown setting up PCR reactions, mentored other high school students in the 2015 Build-a-Gene course. PHOTOS COURTESY OF LISA Z. SCHEIFELE

Access and community

Do-it-yourself biology is a movement of citizen and professional scientists who believe everyone should have an opportunity to engage in the scientific process. While the phrase might call to mind nefarious hackers toiling alone in garages, the reality is that most DIY biologists work openly and collectively. Many have banded together to create community labs where members can share space, material and equipment. These spaces allow them to work in a community, develop project ideas, share expertise and make unexpected interdisciplinary connections.

Baltimore UnderGround Science Space, or BUGSS, is a place for just this kind of creative biology. We are a community laboratory with a mission: to enable those interested in biotechnology to learn and do science in a fun, safe and socially responsible manner. BUGGS offers community lectures, lab classes, workshops and meet-ups for member projects in a newly revitalized neighborhood of east Baltimore. We want the public to engage in science at a variety of levels, so for novices we offer highly mentored courses and instruction; for those who want to learn about the latest technologies and discoveries we offer lectures from eminent local scientists; and for those who want to engage fully and use biological technology we offer access to the technology and guidance to bring their research ideas to fruition.

Authentic research

Citizen scientists who seek out community labs often are highly educated and keep up with the latest scientific developments. With an Outreach Seed Grant from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, BUGSS has been able to offer these citizen scientists a Build-a-Gene course. For the past three summers, the course has brought together patent attorneys, librarians, computer programmers, high school students and artists who have spent their Saturday mornings in the lab learning gene-synthesis protocols. Since gene synthesis uses polymerase chain reaction and molecular cloning to assemble a gene from oligonucleotides, teaching the protocols allows us to expose learners to cutting-edge concepts of synthetic biology while helping them master fundamental skills in molecular biology. Offering the class as a five-week series allows students to repeat fundamental techniques, such as micropipetting, PCR and gel electrophoresis; this allows enough independence to build proficiency with enough instruction to complete the tasks accurately.

Over the past three years, participants have synthesized genes for fluorescent proteins, yeast chromosome fragments and bacteriophages. While the protocol is standardized, each gene may differ in how well it assembles, allowing students to experience the various outcomes of real research — including failure. John Torcivia-Rodriguez, a Ph.D. candidate in bioinformatics at George Washington University, says, “The course helped reaffirm in my mind that biology doesn’t have 100 percent success, but I was surprised by the level of success we did have!”

Students often take the class to get hands-on training with current materials and methods and as a way to spark future research ideas. Krystal Dodd, a recipient of an Outreach Seed Grant scholarship, came to BUGSS as a student recently out of school who was looking for “lab space and peers interested in pursuing their own projects. I find this refreshing and a much needed outlet for my biological passion,” she says. Build-a-Gene participants have gone on to design their own projects. A group of high school students engineered yeast cells to degrade excess starch, solving a real-world industrial problem, which won them a silver medal in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition.

Build-a-Gene participant and BUGSS board member Ryan Hoover selects bacterial colonies for PCR screening.

An inclusive and ethical scientific enterprise

BUGSS sees its role as one of creating informed citizens who are engaged with research science, increasing knowledge of cutting-edge techniques in biochemistry and molecular biology, and promoting discussion between scientists and the voting public. Synthetic biology, including the Build-a-Gene course, has yet to enter the broad public consciousness, and we hope to dispel the myths, fears and concerns about this promising technology. We also assume the responsibility of introducing this technology to the broader public by requiring safety training and engaging actively in ethical discussions. In conjunction with our course, we held a public lecture in bioethics, with Debra Matthews, a researcher from the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics who led a discussion of gene editing technology.

Opening the doors of the lab to citizen scientists offers unprecedented opportunities for engagement and invites broader participation in the scientific enterprise. These new researchers bring diverse perspectives and engage in exciting interdisciplinary dialogue. The work of citizen scientists does not seek to compete in depth or rigor with that of professional scientists but instead can stimulate new insights into how science can address the needs and visions of our communities.

Lisa Z. Scheifele Lisa Z. Scheifele is an associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the board of directors of BUGSS.