On September 21-24, the MIT Media Lab hosted the Bio Summit, the largest assembly of biohackers to date. A milestone in the movement of community biology labs.
Cambridge (USA), special report
September 21, Cambridge, Massachusetts Avenue, not far from Harvard University. The meeting point of the first to arrive at the inaugural Global Community Bio Summit is EMW Bookstore—EMW for East Meets West. Biohackers have come here from Indonesia, Germany, India, Argentina, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Taiwan… East indeed meets West at this starting point for selected lab tours: Novartis Community Exploration and Learning Lab (CELL), Biogen community lab, Artisan’s Asylum makerspace (more later) and Boslab (Boston Open Science Laboratory). Day one offers those who came from afar the opportunity to get to know the rest of the community and learn how a few spaces operate within the local ecosystem.
How To Grow (Almost) Anything
EMW Bookstore is a community space opened in 2015 inside an old neighborhood bookstore by David Kong, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, who this year became the new director of the Media Lab’s Community Biotechnology Initiative, which organized the Bio Summit. Conceived by Kong as a space at the intersection of art, technology and activism, the space includes an exhibition and meeting room as well as a neighborhood biolab and its Street Bio community.
This is where the famous geneticist George Church has been giving his “How To Grow (Almost) Anything” course since 2015, modeled on the “How To Make (Almost) Anything” course by Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the Center For Bits and Atoms at MIT who launched the concept of the fablab 15 years ago. This Bio Academy is entering its third year on a distributed campus and is now part of the Academy of (almost) anything, or Academany.
George Church and David Kong are ardent defenders of opening and distributing synthetic biology to the general public. For these two scientists, as for the Street Bio team and many Bio Summit participants, the biological engineering of organism design and DNA assembly must leave the ivory towers of laboratories and biotechnology companies to be part of daily life and become “accessible to the creativity of younger generations”.
Convinced that the capacity of synthetic biology to reorganize living things will have deep implications in medicine, materials and energy, even leading to the augmentation of humanity itself, they want to be actors in the burgeoning bioeconomy, even if it means “biotechnologizing” collective fantasies with Jurassic Park-like scenarios. George Church is the author of the controversial 2012 bestseller Regenesis (“How synthetic biology will reinvent nature and ourselves”), and has contributed to promoting the idea of species “de-extinction”, launching the media buzz around the possible resurrection of the Neanderthal and currently lobbying to resurrect the woolly mammoth. He recently declared to New Scientist that he hoped it will be possible to create a woolly mammoth embryo within the next two years, saying that reintroducing the species in the tundra would be a way to fight global warming. This very serious project is further narrated in Woolly, a book by Ben Mezrich released this summer, which develops Church’s future “Pleistocene Park”… of which a screen adaptation is also planned.
MIT gets involved in the DIYbio community
So the idea of the Bio Summit was born in the modest space of EMW Bookstore. On September 22, David Kong and his team welcome the 200 participants to the sixth floor of the Media Lab’s glass building. The view of Boston and the river is unparalleled. The atmosphere is enthusiastic. It’s the biggest gathering of biohackers ever organized. Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab, Internet entrepreneur and chairman of Creative Commons since 2006, gives the opening speech. Biohackers are part of the philosophical continuity of the hacker movement in the field of computers and networks, he says. As such, he firmly believes that the Media Lab must support the creation of a structured international community, concretly meaning here funding the travels of many biohackers from all continents to the Bio Summit through the Community Biotechnology Initiative.
David Kong and Joi Ito wish to broaden ways of participating in biotechnology, given that the next generation of innovators “will include diverse communities across cultural, socioeconomic, artistic, and creative domains”. The objectives of the Community Biotechnology Initiative range from developing infrastructure for sharing, low-cost enabling hardware and facilitating encounters between art, design and biology. Kong, already involved in the science of microfluidics, launched this spring the open source Metafluidics database of “lab-on-a-chip” design tools, as a first gesture of the initiative, where inventors from all horizons, engineers, scientists, students, amateurs and makers can upload their projects. Microfluidics is a rapidly growing field, as further evidenced by the opening of Institut Pierre-Gilles de Gennes in Paris in 2015.
Time to say hello
After the introductory remarks was the first “Hello World!” session, in which participants had one minute each to introduce themselves to the audience. The Bio Summit was also an opportunity for Makery to introduce itself to the 200 participants, as well as meet in person a number of people and their projects covered on our site: Bethan Wolfenden of Bento Lab, Jenny Molloy of the Global Open Science Hardware (Gosh) movement, Mary Maggic of Open Source Estrogen and DIYsect, Roland van Dierendonck and Günter Seyfried whom we met at the DIY Human Enhancement Clinic during Border Sessions 2017 in The Hague, Li Yu from La Paillasse, and many others.
Unwanted media exposure
The first morning of the Bio Summit is basically dedicated to defining the preliminary frame of good practice: biosafety, ethics, inclusion, definition of a biohacker, narrative elements. Pioneers Todd Kuiken and Jason Bobe recall the emergence of the DIYbio movement in a Boston pub in 2008 and the first press coverage in 2009 comparing biohackers to mad scientists like Dr Frankenstein. Josiah Zayner, the controversial biohacker known for his DIY fecal transplant and the confiscation by a very regulated Germany of his CRISPR “genetic scissors” DIY kit produced by his company The Odin, is in the hallways, followed intensely by cameras. This media exposure is not to everyone’s taste, as some feel that his spectacle hinders the movement. Zayner likes to tell anyone who will listen how important he believes it is to develop narratives and controversial scenarios that please the media in his journey as a “biohacker hero”. His latest media coup was announcing that he plans to DIY modify his own genetic code. It’s a very simple and quick procedure using CRISPR, he says. Some participants (who prefer to remain anonymous) complain about the intentionally provocative nature of his practices, which in their eyes serve only to promote his entreprise.
Besides Zayner, actors of the DIYbio platform explained how the need for a code of good practices became apparent as early as 2011. They organized founding conventions, in Europe (with the help of La Paillasse in Paris) and in the United States. The goal was to specify the code that would define the motivations, educational practices and limits. Kuiken and Bobe insist that we now need to remix/redefine this code defined six years ago.
Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou, as the only representative of the African continent after the Ghaneans were unable to obtain visas, asked the audience: Does the biohacking movement always follow the hacking philosophy? That is, according to him: anticapitalism, subversion, commons? Thomas, a researcher in Canada, highlights the differences in needs between Africa and North America, the problems of maintaining a hackerspace in Africa, the lack of funding, the difficulties in acquiring equipment, the irruption of capitalist interests instead of building an economy based on commons, the elitism of biohacking, much too academic, too male. Thomas declares the need for academics to be trained in citizen science, for the convergence of biohackerspaces and science shops, for the Jugaad spirit of frugal innovation, for “débrouillardise” in french.
Stefanie Wuschitz from Mz Baltazar’s Laboratory, a hackerspace in Vienna dedicated to DIY projects that merge arts, technology and feminism, gave another remarkable talk. By video-conference, she retraced the foundations of the ecofeminist, cyberfeminist and current xenofeminist movements. The xenofeminist slogan “If nature is unjust, let’s change nature!” seemed to please both female and male biohackers present.
DIYbio equipment for hands-on workshops
The afternoon is divided into subgroups. A panel on low-cost equipment presents Amino Labs, Bento Lab and Opentrons, followed by practical workshops on how to make a $10 microscope with a webcam, and how to use Amino Labs tools, by Canadians Julie Legault and Justin Pahara, a project that came out of the MIT Media Lab in 2015 to provide machines accessible to people aged 12 and above to play with bacteria DNA and make pigments and fragrances.
Another panel discusses international collaborations and infrastructures in the fields of publishing or health. Travis Rich from MIT presents tools for collaborative publishing for large-scale collaborations. Thomas Landrain, the French pioneer of biolabs, presents his distributed collaboration project Just One Giant Lab (JOGL) and explains how the French Epidemium program to open up cancer data inspired his idea. Landrain, who resigned from La Paillasse this spring, divides his time between JOGL and a new mission as head of development for the IGEM synthetic biology competiton, which will host its next jamboree on November 9-13 in Boston (Landrain himself competed in IGEM in 2007, which motivated him to subsequently cofound La Paillasse).
Another speaker on the panel, Eléonore Pauwels from the Wilson Center, is working with the Citizen Health Innovators Project to examine the popularization of innovation in the health sector, in particular citizens who “hacked” their way to health, such as those who practiced gene therapy on themselves outside of any legal frame.
Bio art, design and environment
Day two begins with a new series of workshops and presentations on bio art and design. The MIT Media Lab’s “design fiction” department sets the tone with fresh graduates Mary Maggic and Ani Liu. Liu stood out this year with her BCI (Brain Computer Interface) to remotely influence the movement of sperm in reaction to Donald Trump’s phallocratic utterance “grab’em by the pussy”. Her response? “Woman of STEAM Grabs Back.”
Troublemaker and artist provocateur Adam Zaretsky also tested the audience’s ethics between biodesign and fiction by declaring his intention to beget and raise a transgenic child. Zaretsky refers to the first tests of CRISPR gene editing on a human embryo in China in 2015. The ultimate Frankenstein scenario? Most of the audience seems to be quite familiar with the artist’s provocations, which are certainly more effective when done anonymously in more mainstream or corporate contexts. Zaretsky highlights the troubles raised by this issue: hereditary cascade, intergalactic spreading, transgenic erotic desire and esthetics, psycho-social problems in transgenic children, etc. According to Zaretsky, “manipulating genes with pipettes is a sexual act, and looking at it through a microscope is pornography”.
After a first “break-out session” on bio art, the day continues with presentations on environmental projects: the Amazon Floating Fablab (which we covered here); Seattle’s Citizen Salmon initiative to trace the often dubious source of salmon filets in our plates by using an accessible DIY kit to identify their genetic origin; Beecosystem, a project led by the Genspace biolab in Brooklyn, New York, winner of the Bio Design Challenge in the food and agriculture category. Beecosystem is based on the virtuous circle of hop flower and bee, beer and honey.
Day two concludes with organizational issues of labs such as problems in education, from Bio Academy courses initiated at EMW Bookstore to the IGEM competition, with a talk by Jake Wintermute, animator of the synthetic biology MOOC at CRI (Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire) in Paris.
Priority to health and distributed data
The last day was dedicated to multiple working “unconferences” and especially to the appearances of George Church and Neil Gershenfeld. Church started off the day with a plenary session. According to the Harvard Medical School genetics professor who directs the Personal Genome Project of sharing personal genome data, it’s a “citizen science project that encourages you to know your genome to the extent that it could really help you and your family”. To the audience: “If you hack, you should know what you’re hacking.” Church affirms that “If a new pathogen emerges, this community is best placed to develop a scalable, low-cost diagnostic tool to detect it.”
To the question of giving the movement priorities, Church replies that the DIYbio should focus above all on health issues, low-cost diagnostics tools and distributed data. He says he was impressed with the Bio Weather Map initiative to collect planetary data on microbial life through low-cost DNA sequencing in the interest of public health, preserving biodiversity and biosurveillance. “I would love for everyone to carry a sequencer or something like it that you could distribute to your friends and that would be part of the Internet of Things, that reports you what is in the food or the air, etc., while we still need to be well aware of the negative aspects that it could pose in terms of control.”
To the question of climate change, Church replies that his woolly mammoth project is a way of calling attention to the melting of permafrost and its 1,400 gigatons of carbon. He refers to the “Great Oxidation” of the Earth and the role of cyanobacteria in converting CO2 to O2, which made the Earth suitable to life, and how these cyanobacteria could be helpful in considering a carbon reversal through designing new generation biofuels.
Finally, Church underlines the “remarkable diversity of the DIYbio community, something we don’t find in academic circles”. Indeed, it’s one of the Bio Summit’s greatest successes. Nonetheless, the Asia unconference called attention to the need for different models, as their needs are not the same as in North America and Europe. It’s an exemplary and lively scene, closer to the Hackteria networks of access to health care and science (to which the Bio Summit also paid tribute) than to the objectives of the geneticists in Boston.
Another issue is the alignment of the South American community to North American synthetic biology, which goes so far as to be called the Syntechbio Network, consulted by Silicon Valley teams Biocurious and IndieBio SF. We are even quite taken aback to hear the biolab of a medium-sized city in Ecuador say that they have a hard time getting the locals interested in synthetic biology… when there are more immediate biological applications than high-tech genome research…
Dictatorship, strong leadership or soft power?
Unfortunately, the international network lacked the will to build a democratic and equitable structuration of the movement during the Bio Summit, leaving leadership in the hands of animators of the MIT Media Lab’s Community Biotechnology Initiative, as David Kong bombed the audience with typically U.S.-centric “awesome” and “amazing” ad nauseum. This form of Western hegemony was also felt in the unconference with Neil Gershenfeld and George Church. The latter was relatively quiet, except to say that the Community Biotechnology Initiative should take inspiration from the way the fablab network was built.
Gershenfeld surprised the audience by declaring (to wake everyone up with provocation, he claims): “Every open source community project has a dictator. There is Mitchell Baker for Mozilla, there is Linus Torvalds for Linux, Jimmy Wales for Wikipedia. There is a need for strong leadership to build a distributed organizational workflow.” Needless to say, the audience reacted. Bio artist Carolyn Angleton from Sacramento asked him: “Why weren’t you at the panel on diversity, and to say it politely, why should a fablab in Cameroon be affiliated with MIT? Why should we have to define ourselves as a network with a leadership controlling the whole?” Ellen Jorgensen from Biotech Without Borders added: “What is this form of Coca-Cola cultural imperialism that you’re giving us to export? Why should we put our model first at all costs?” Gershenfeld argued that the fablab network has completely left MIT now, so MIT no longer controls it. He evoked the diversity of fablabs throughout the world and the autonomy of their projects, giving (again) the example of the Amazon Floating Fablab, saying he took inspiration from the soft power of those who architectured the Internet and the online commons.
Dictatorship, strong leadership or soft power? The presence of anthropologists or political sociologists of the sciences seemed to be lacking at the Bio Summit.