by Derek Simon
When one first walks under Rockefeller University’s main gates—aged steel tinged with verdigris and infused with scientific history—one word immediately comes to mind: prestige. Indeed, Rockefeller University is a place of great science and great accomplishments. But prestige in the protected world of academic science can be a double-edged sword when it comes to the communication of that science to the public. Walk two blocks over and mention “Rockefeller” and its not “science” that people speak of, but the New York City landmark that is Rockefeller Center. No one seems to know—or care—that literally down the street lies one of the world’s top scientific institutions. But—to paraphrase an old adage—if a scientist makes a discovery in a forest (RU is almost a forest) and no one knows, is the knowledge no less important? Of course not, but this degree of separation affects how science and scientists are perceived and, ultimately, the value that research contributes to society. If science is not understood and appreciated by non-scientists, than scientific public policy has no basis of support. We live in a world built by science, and people need to know how and why.
Take a short 4 or 5 train ride from Rockefeller and you will arrive at Genspace, a very different kind of scientific environment nestled onto the seventh floor of an unassuming office building in the vicinity of the Brooklyn theater district. Enter 33 Flatbush Ave and you are immediately struck by the unfinished quality of even the lobby: various artworks strewn about, the flooring and walls completely bare; this is certainly no corporate office building. A somewhat unnerving elevator ride—one of those old ones where you have to pull the door open to enter—up to the seventh floor and you emerge into a lab space unlike any you will find in the pristine, well-manicured halls of academia.
I think “organized chaos” best describes this space, smaller than any lab I’ve ever worked in. There’s an open area with a long table and stools that is clearly meant for meetings, a white wall for projecting presentations, a banner displaying the Genspace logo draped off the edge of another surface, and various familiar sights to any hardened (or otherwise) molecular biologist: blue-capped 50ml conical tubes, a microscope or two, gel boxes replete with power supply, pipettes and their accompanying tips. A glass enclosure, which is clearly the main lab space, occupies a corner of the room and is filled with a hodge-podge assortment of equipment and tools and tube racks, a small refrigerator, and even stainless-steel shelves and counter space. This entire workspace (less than 750ft2) is smaller than my own personal lab bench at Rockefeller.
The entire laboratory cultivates an air of rawness, even spontaneity, that seems so contradictory to how I was taught science. But I think this is the point of Genspace, not being afraid to get your hands dirty to do a little science, inviting anyone to dive into this prestigious, yet misunderstood, field head-first. Suddenly the terms “biohacking”, “do-it-yourself science”, and “citizen science” make a lot of sense: this is truly garage molecular biology. One thing is certain, this is an ambitious and original attempt to engage the public in actual scientific work.
Not Your Mother’s Molecular Biology Lab
Dr. Ellen Jorgensen, at the beginning of her seminar “The Evolution of a Community Biolab” presented to the Rockefeller University campus (the first of this year’s Science and Media Lecture Series), admits that she’s “not great at giving talks”, which is somewhat odd to say since her TEDtalk has now received almost a million hits and, since her work at Genspace has been extensively covered in the media from Nature Medicine to the New York Times. However, Ellen is not a publicist or journalist by training, she is a card-carrying molecular biologist who has spent time in both academia and private industry. But while Dr. Jorgensen is passionate about basic research, she felt that while extremely important, her own research was simply not as “impactful” as she would have liked. That is to say she felt as if she could not see or feel the direct influence of her work. Ellen wanted the public to appreciate and understand the significance of basic research, and she felt her life at the lab bench was insufficient to accomplish this. This realization, and her burgeoning passion for communicating science, led her to the Google Group “DIYBio”, which eventually connected her with Daniel Grushkin, a science journalist, and Oliver Medvedik PhD, a Harvard-trained molecular biologist. This motley trio shared a singular passion for bringing molecular biology to the people, and this vision has kept them devoted to Genspace as it has evolved over the years.
Genspace was officially incorporated into a non-profit in 2009 with the expressed goal of scientific outreach within the New York City community, providing mentorship and resources for anyone interested in biology. Dan’s living room provided the first workspace for the initial experiments, his furniture draped in plastic á la “Dexter”. The media coverage was heavy right from the beginning, as journalists were fascinated by this do-it-yourself approach to biology—in fact, a New York Times reporter appeared at the first official gathering. Eventually, interest and donations increased and in June 10, shop was set up at a “hacker space” on Flatbush Ave, thanks to an enthusiastic supporter described as a mix between “Santa Claus and Jerry Garcia.” Several months later, Genspace officially opened its doors in December 2010.
“DNAqueria” and the “Gum Project”
Anyone who has spent hours at the bench knows the tedium of basic research. Most scientists probably don’t remember the first time they purified and separated DNA using gel electrophoresis, and having done it so many times, they may have forgotten how special and unique it really is. In contrast, Ellen described how ten amateurs at one of Genspace’s courses clustered around her, awestruck and giddy as children on Christmas morning, as she ran her own gel electrophoresis. She says that she loves “watching people discover science for the first time… experience that feeling of wonder…”
Science is really all about the wonder of everything around us but many hardened scientists neither remember that feeling of child-like delight nor have any desire to share it. Genspace, if nothing else, is really at the forefront of exposing people to this initial sense of wonder. A classic Genspace experiment performed in the laboratory, on the road in public spaces (e.g. Tompkins Square Park), or at high schools, is the “DNAqueria”. This experiment uses Bacardi 151 to perform a DNA extraction from strawberries1. Imagine eating strawberries your entire life and then being able to visualize the gossamer strands of DNA for the first time!
An eclectic mix of people from “janitors to winemakers to venture capitalists” have enrolled at Genspace including the popular “Biohacking Bootcamp” course. A number of programs have been aimed at high school students, one ambitious student performed her science fair-winning experiments there, and Genspace has fostered several high school teams for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition.
As expected, a sizable chunk of course enrollees have a computer science or engineering background. Perhaps less expected, another major chunk of enrollees are artists. There are some in the media that dub this century the “Age of Biology” and artists—always hoping to reflect the zeitgeist in their work—are evidently enthusiastic about incorporating biology into their projects. Bioluminescence and fluorescent proteins easily lend themselves to the creation of brilliant images but one art teacher creatively used a certain type of bacteria as the material for her canvasses.
Art and science may seem like strange bedfellows but both explore the human condition albeit in entirely different ways. Genspace provides an open forum to explore the dialogue between art and science. For example, the artist/PhD student Heather Dewey-Hagborn posited the question “How much can you learn about a person from a piece of gum or a cigarette butt?” Her innovative and ambitious approach involved collecting gum and cigarette butts from various places around the city and then extracting and purifying the DNA at Genspace. She identified genetic variants from her extracted DNA and fed the data into a computer program that extrapolated her genetic data in order to make predictions on what the faces from her “gum DNA” might look like. Finally, she created masks based on those digital images. Ellen said, “The ‘gum’ project increased media interest in Genspace more than anything else.” Heather’s project is the quintessential “biohacking” project: a non-biologist seeking to explore the wonders of biology in a project only possible thanks to her access to the appropriate tools, equipment, and expertise at Genspace.
However, unlike computer hacking, which can be done on a laptop virtually anywhere, biohacking is far more cumbersome and requires a plethora of expensive equipment. As is often the case with science accessibility is limited by money. This is by far Genspace’s greatest flaw: it’s not cheap. Enrolling in a course at Genspace, or having access to the lab, will run you around $100-150 a month. For the many underfunded schools in New York City, the cost of Genspace is unfortunately too high. Genspace does facilitate a number of gratis outreach activities, but it could still do a great deal more to decrease the price and increase the accessibility of its lab. But to be fair, this may come back to Ellen’s training as a scientist, and not as a professional schmoozer or fundraiser. She even admits, “I have a stack of business cards but haven’t gotten around to calling them back.” Regardless of idealism and originality though, pragmatically speaking, a better funding situation needs to be devised in order for Genspace’s impact to expand.
The Future of Biohacking
Is the future of biology in small, start-up spaces like Genspace? Will biohacking be as transformative for biology as computer hacking was for technology? Personally, I don’t think so- but I’m biased towards academia, where I hope to start my own lab one day. But I think that misses the point entirely. Biohacking is more about outreach than innovation, and the future of science depends on both. Carl Sagan, that great popularizer of science, described the problem best, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology in which almost no one knows anything about science and technology.” Scientists have a choice: continue their work in the lofty, isolated perch of the ivory tower, or open the doors and invite the public to share in, understand and, in turn, appreciate the wonder of discovery. In my opinion—and in that of Dr. Ellen Jorgensen and the others at Genspace—the two choices are not mutually exclusive. Scientific research has become such an esoteric pursuit that the public feels intimidated or detached from its proceedings. Academic scientists should not be afraid to reveal the wizard behind the curtain, to demystify their efforts. Look to your friendly, neighborhood molecular biology lab at Genspace for proof that the public is ready, willing, and most importantly, excited to engage with and learn from scientists. Scientists need to be just as eager to engage with the public, Genspace-style!
1. The strawberries are smooshed up, then the DNA is released from the strawberry cells by a solution of salt and detergent, the mixture is filtered to remove leftover strawberry chunks, and finally the high-alcohol content of the Bacardi 151 is used to cause the DNA to appear in the solution, or precipitate. Many non-scientists are probably not even aware that DNA exists in strawberries, nevertheless given the opportunity to extract it.