Digital Biology: Synenergene and the DIYbio scene

Digital Biology: Synenergene and the DIYbio scene

The insights of life sciences into the fundamental setup of nature enables a new generation of synthetic biologists to reprogram life itself, and with increasing knowledge and technical skills, the sphere in which intentional intervention in nature is possible is continuing to expand rapidly. Costs of laboratory equipment is dramatically decreasing, and materials as well as knowledge are diffusing out of the laboratories reaching people which were traditionally not involved in academic or industrial laboratory research.

Since 2008, people around the globe have been connecting over the internet to take part in doing and debating modern life science practices as citizen scientists. They test and iterate new modes for how a modern civil society driven biotechnology could work – doing things differently, and advancing off the beaten tracks. Central to the mission of citizen science is the belief that a greater public understanding about biotechnology has the potential to benefit everyone. They produce open source knowledge and materials to inspire better education, research, arts and culture as well as policy making.

Synenergene looks into innovation practises for 21st century biotechnology from a societal, technological, organisational and economic viewpoint. How do these different fields interplay, and where are the gaps to fill? We seek to find out if and how one domain could fertilize the other in yet unexpected ways. For this goal we teamed up with the DIYbio Europe scene to use the creative potential of citizen scientists to map out possible futures of 21st century biology in a european and global context.

A series of theoretical and practical workshops were designed and hosted in a number of venues with partners of the Synenergene network. In the digital workshops citizens defined speculative scenarios of a world in which synthetic biology is widely used, not used at all or anything inbetween. In the analog workshops, people got hands on experience with synthetic biology using DIYbio equipment and materials. The workshops were featured as focus groups and debates by taking into account practical and abstract knowledge generated in the workshops on digital and analog biology. In the last 2 years, results of this research within the Synenergene program, brought citizen scientists beyond the traditional concepts and narratives of synthetic biology,  incubating a new way of thinking modern biology: Digital Biology.

Recent advances in Synthetic biology open up new possibilities in healthcare, agriculture, chemicals, materials, energy and bioremediation. To date this is still a very labor intensive task that requires skilled technicians and scientists. However, manual work is time consuming and wages drive development costs, thereby restricting possibilities for rapid prototyping in synthetic biology. In contrast, Digital Biology is the computer aided programming of biological assays using digital microfluidic biochip devices based on electrowetting technology.. Advanced laboratory hardware could soon deploy biotechnological procedures at a lower cost by exploring and combining easy to replicate ’Do It Yourself’ equipment. Moreover, an increase of automation could replace time consuming labor and improve replicability while standardise protocols and of methods.

Digital Biology allows for wide scale automation of laboratory procedures in synthetic biology by improving efficiency between 1000 to 100000 fold compared to manual laboratory work, and for the first time enabling wide scale rapid prototyping for the iterative creation of biological systems. This will allow even small biological laboratories in academia and industry as well as researchers in the developing world to develop synthetic biology products.

Citizen scientists looked into how to update the way science and technology is produced. Existing structures of knowledge production are put under scrutiny and new ways to tackle societal problems such as the antibiotic crisis are explored (see blogpost on Biostrike), resulting in the development of new technology and research approach.

Besides developing technology, discussions are ongoing on what might be a more comprehensive governance that takes into account these new stakeholders, and the societal trends that they embody. For instance, citizens involved in the research activity of this consortium made a number of suggestions on how to regulate intellectual property in the world of digitalized biology. Researchers, hackers, artists and citizens from all over the world, were invited to discuss the requirements and conditions of Open-Source and Citizen-Science concepts to contribute to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in the Life Sciences.

The proposed legal procedures are now being iterated in the newly founded digital society on digital biology research

Our best advice is that the European Commission should take into account this legislation sandbox for future policy making on the subjects at stake. In a series of blog articles, we are documenting this exciting new development in responsible research and innovation.