LA Biohackers is bubbling with initiatives to promote DIY biology. Their experiments and environmental design projects attract both kids and their parents, researchers and science buffs…
Los Angeles, from our correspondent (text and photos by Ewen Chardronnet)
It’s hot in Los Angeles during this late summer 2014. It hasn’t rained all summer, but Californians are falsely preoccupied by the heat, when small talk revolves around road traffic and air-conditioning. At LA Biohackers lab, in the abandoned warehouse district east of Downtown, the topic of discussion is quite different. One passionate group is talking about their proposal for the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation) competition, recently open to non-collegiate teams, which promises many project presentations by DIY biologists. LA Biohackers decided to commit to a project that they prefer not to discuss yet, as they are still at the research stage. The particularity of their biohacklab reflects the group, which consists of both adults and adolescents.
DIY biology was born in 2005, once it was proven that DNA could be purified with simple household products. The growing movement has become quite popular in California thanks to the Outlaw Biology Symposium organized by the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2010. Since then, spaces such as San Francisco’s BioCurious biohackerspace have also promoted the movement. This was the inspiration for LA Biohackers. Although the electronic hackerspace Null Space Labs allocated them a “biocorner”, it quickly grew overcrowded from all their accumulated equipment.
Now settled in their months-old Downtown space, LA Biohackers presents itself as a nonprofit organization focused on educational and collaborative projects among people of all ages in the fields of synthetic biology, molecular biology and personal genomics. Members come to hacking sessions every Sunday.
On this late summer day, about 15 people are in the room, mostly kids aged 11 to 15, working on projects with their parents or other adults with some background in biology. It’s a positive atmosphere, and nice to see parents guiding their kids through intriguing manipulations.
After the iGEM meeting, three projects are tested in the lab. The first measures the action potential or nerve impulses of a carnivorous plant, using the SpikerBox kit for measuring electric activity designed by the DIY neuroscience group Backyard Brains.
Caterpillars and butterflies. The second project evaluates the effects of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a polyphenol found in green tea known for its anti-cancer properties, on the length of telomeres (a highly repetitive—and therefore noncoding—compound structure at the end of a chromosome). The third project is an experiment on the distribution of repulsive odors by electrocuting caterpillars and butterflies to see if caterpillars can assimilate bad smells and pain.
The lab environment is focused, but always good-natured. Everything is coordinated by Cory Tobin, the primary engine of LA Biohackers. Cory organizes workshops, lectures and meetings, as well as overseeing the lab’s iGEM project. He jokes that “during his free time”, he’s also doing a thesis in biology at Caltech (California Institute of Technology).
Cory is also the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of a new initiative called LabLaunch. This ambitious project, led by Llewellyn Cox, founder of LieuLabs (consulting and management in biotechnology), and Ryan Bethencourt, director of XPRIZE foundation’s Life Sciences Prize Group, intends to develop the first independent biotechnology incubator in Los Angeles. “We still have a lot of political maneuvering to do before we achieve our goal,” Cory speculates. “The Inland Empire isn’t really a biotech territory, everything is concentrated in the Bay Area. We hope to develop a project modeled on QB3”, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences in San Francisco. “Llewellyn wants to make it a hackubator,” Cory smiles, using one of the latest buzzwords.