London Biohackspace: a link between science and the public

London's Biohackspace. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

London’s Biohackspace. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Beer – the world’s favourite drink. How could it possibly be improved? Well, how about if it glowed in the dark? Or, what if it tasted like raspberries? Perhaps if it contained miracle berry proteins, that make all sour food taste sweet?

That is the dream of the hobby biologists from London Biohackspace, a community run molecular biology lab, which is a part of London Hackspace in Bethnal Green.

Biohackspace allows amateurs and professionals from diverse backgrounds, like biology, engineering and design, to utilise lab equipment and bench space for communal and individual projects.

Biohackspace iGEM meeting. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Biohackspace iGEM meeting. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Last month, five members received a bronze medal at the 11th annual synthetic biology competition iGEM in Boston, where they presented their idea for a DIY, designer brewing kit, which gives people the ability to modify yeast strands to create novel features in beer.

Among 250 student-led teams from all over the world, they were the only community lab team from Europe and the first community lab in the UK approved to carry out genetic techniques.

The diverse range of projects that were presented at iGEM exemplifies the potential of synthetic biology as a field, which brings together processes of engineering and biology to create biological systems out of parts and modify DNA.

It has been applied, as perhaps most widely acknowledged, in food production for the elevation of the global food crisis. At iGEM, however, everything from tumour localisation tests to remedies for lactose intolerance and renewable fuel was represented.

“Synthetic biology is an enabling technology,” explains biochemistry student and member of Biohackspace’s iGEM team Edoardo Gianni, 20. “As such it will have a big impact on medicine and food. A lot that is being done by the chemical industry could be done biologically and be more eco-friendly.”

However, despite being so intimately entangled with our lives, genetic modification still carries negative connotations to a large part of the public.

According to research by YouGov for example, 41% of people in the UK have a negative view of genetically modified food and 31% say they don’t know enough about it to judge.

Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

It comes as no surprise then, that on October 3, over half of EU countries voted to prohibit genetically modified crop production.

Ilya Levantis, 24, a bioinformatics student at Queen Mary University and director of London Biohackspace explains: “The consensus among the public right now, at least in Europe is ‘We don’t want GM crops.’ They’re democratically elected governments so they do what the public wants to some extent and people like the idea of laws that ban GM crops.”

“I think currently one of the biggest problems that the scientific community is facing is a lack of understanding from the general public,” agrees Tyche Siebers, 21, who studies biology at Oxford.

“It makes it very hard to convince people that certain laws need to be passed and certain things need to be changed, to do with the environment or public health and agricultural policy.”

Lena Asai at Biohackspace. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Designer Lena Asai at Biohackspace, London. Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

“The Biohackspace sees itself as a necessary gateway between biotechnology and the public,” explains designer Lena Asai, 21.

The aim of their iGEM project was thus not, unlike many others, to save the world through biology but to address the fundamental issue of a lack of engagement with synthetic biology and its possibilities by taking a universally liked product like beer and making it not only proudly GMO but also giving people the ability to experiment with it in a safe manner.

“It can be hard for people to understand why it’s important to genetically engineer seeds because the idea of ‘You’re going to get this many more tons of cereal and feed this many people’ is all very abstract,” adds Siebers.

“By having a place like Biohackspace where you can run open days or classes, and through projects like the DIY brew kit you just give people a little introduction into scientific thinking, making it more personal to them and hopefully making them be more engaged with those sorts of issues.”

Simultaneously, Asai believes, that it is essential to bring more people from non-scientific backgrounds into the experimentation process for the sake of innovation.

“I think theres almost too many scientists. It’s so important to bring in more creative minds with a new and different outlook, outside of the traditional scientific box.”

Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

Pic: Jennifer Hahn.

So, whether you have experience or not, if you are interested in synthetic biology and “tinkering with DNA and stuff,” as the members jokingly call it, contact London Biohackspace via e-mail or through Twitter/Facebook and arrange to pop in for one of their Open Evenings.

DIY Brew Kit Manual

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