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TEDGlobal 2012

Ellen Jorgensen: Biohacking -- you can do it, too

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We have personal computing -- why not personal biotech? That's the question biologist Ellen Jorgensen and her colleagues asked themselves before opening Genspace, a nonprofit DIY bio lab in Brooklyn devoted to citizen science, where amateurs can go and tinker with biotechnology. Far from being a sinister Frankenstein's lab (as some imagined it), Genspace offers a long list of fun, creative and practical uses for DIY bio.

- Biologist and community science advocate
Ellen Jorgensen is at the leading edge of the do-it-yourself biotechnology movement, bringing scientific exploration and understanding to the public. Full bio

It's a great time to be a molecular biologist. (Laughter)
00:16
Reading and writing DNA code is getting easier
00:19
and cheaper.
00:22
By the end of this year, we'll be able to sequence
00:24
the three million bits of information
00:26
in your genome in less than a day
00:28
and for less than 1,000 euros.
00:31
Biotech is probably the most powerful
00:33
and the fastest-growing technology sector.
00:36
It has the power, potentially,
00:39
to replace our fossil fuels,
00:42
to revolutionize medicine,
00:44
and to touch every aspect of our daily lives.
00:47
So who gets to do it?
00:51
I think we'd all be pretty comfortable with
00:55
this guy doing it.
00:57
But what about
01:00
that guy? (Laughter)
01:02
(Laughter)
01:05
In 2009, I first heard about DIYbio.
01:07
It's a movement that -- it advocates making biotechnology
01:13
accessible to everyone,
01:17
not just scientists and people in government labs.
01:19
The idea is that if you open up the science
01:22
and you allow diverse groups to participate,
01:26
it could really stimulate innovation.
01:29
Putting technology in the hands of the end user
01:30
is usually a good idea because they've got the best idea
01:33
of what their needs are.
01:36
And here's this really sophisticated technology
01:39
coming down the road, all these associated
01:42
social, moral, ethical questions,
01:44
and we scientists are just lousy at explaining to the public
01:47
just exactly what it is we're doing in those labs.
01:51
So wouldn't it be nice
01:54
if there was a place in your local neighborhood
01:57
where you could go and learn about this stuff,
02:00
do it hands-on?
02:02
I thought so.
02:04
So, three years ago, I got together
02:06
with some friends of mine who had similar aspirations
02:08
and we founded Genspace.
02:11
It's a nonprofit, a community biotech lab
02:14
in Brooklyn, New York,
02:17
and the idea was people could come,
02:18
they could take classes and putter around in the lab
02:20
in a very open, friendly atmosphere.
02:24
None of my previous experience prepared me
02:28
for what came next. Can you guess?
02:31
The press started calling us.
02:34
And the more we talked about how great it was to increase
02:37
science literacy, the more they wanted to talk
02:40
about us creating the next Frankenstein,
02:43
and as a result, for the next six months,
02:46
when you Googled my name,
02:49
instead of getting my scientific papers, you got this.
02:51
["Am I a biohazard?"]
02:55
(Laughter)
02:56
It was pretty depressing.
02:58
The only thing that got us through that period
03:00
was that we knew that all over the world,
03:03
there were other people that were trying to do
03:05
the same thing that we were.
03:07
They were opening biohacker spaces, and some of them
03:09
were facing much greater challenges than we did,
03:11
more regulations, less resources.
03:14
But now, three years later, here's where we stand.
03:18
It's a vibrant, global community of hackerspaces,
03:22
and this is just the beginning.
03:26
These are some of the biggest ones,
03:28
and there are others opening every day.
03:30
There's one probably going to open up in Moscow,
03:32
one in South Korea,
03:35
and the cool thing is they each have their own
03:37
individual flavor
03:39
that grew out of the community they came out of.
03:41
Let me take you on a little tour.
03:43
Biohackers work alone.
03:46
We work in groups,
03:49
in big cities — (Laughter) —
03:51
and in small villages.
03:56
We reverse engineer lab equipment.
03:58
We genetically engineer bacteria.
04:01
We hack hardware,
04:04
software,
04:06
wetware,
04:08
and, of course, the code of life.
04:10
We like to build things.
04:13
Then we like to take things apart.
04:16
We make things grow.
04:23
We make things glow.
04:25
And we make cells dance.
04:27
The spirit of these labs, it's open, it's positive,
04:31
but, you know, sometimes when people think of us,
04:34
the first thing that comes to mind is bio-safety,
04:37
bio-security, all the dark side stuff.
04:41
I'm not going to minimize those concerns.
04:44
Any powerful technology is inherently dual use,
04:47
and, you know, you get something like
04:50
synthetic biology, nanobiotechnology,
04:52
it really compels you, you have to look at both
04:55
the amateur groups but also the professional groups,
04:58
because they have better infrastructure,
05:01
they have better facilities,
05:04
and they have access to pathogens.
05:05
So the United Nations did just that, and they recently
05:08
issued a report on this whole area,
05:11
and what they concluded was the power of this technology
05:14
for positive was much greater than the risk for negative,
05:17
and they even looked specifically at the DIYbio community,
05:21
and they noted, not surprisingly, that the press
05:24
had a tendency to consistently overestimate our capabilities
05:28
and underestimate our ethics.
05:32
As a matter of fact, DIY people from all over the world,
05:34
America, Europe, got together last year,
05:38
and we hammered out a common code of ethics.
05:41
That's a lot more than conventional science has done.
05:43
Now, we follow state and local regulations.
05:47
We dispose of our waste properly, we follow
05:50
safety procedures, we don't work with pathogens.
05:52
You know, if you're working with a pathogen,
05:56
you're not part of the biohacker community,
05:58
you're part of the bioterrorist community, I'm sorry.
06:01
And sometimes people ask me,
06:04
"Well, what about an accident?"
06:06
Well, working with the safe organisms that we normally
06:08
work with, the chance of an accident happening
06:11
with somebody accidentally creating, like,
06:15
some sort of superbug,
06:17
that's literally about as probable as a snowstorm
06:19
in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
06:23
Now, it could happen,
06:25
but I'm not going to plan my life around it.
06:26
I've actually chosen to take a different kind of risk.
06:30
I signed up for something called the Personal Genome Project.
06:33
It's a study at Harvard where, at the end of the study,
06:36
they're going to take my entire genomic sequence,
06:39
all of my medical information, and my identity,
06:42
and they're going to post it online for everyone to see.
06:45
There were a lot of risks involved that they talked about
06:50
during the informed consent portion.
06:52
The one I liked the best is,
06:54
someone could download my sequence, go back to the lab,
06:56
synthesize some fake Ellen DNA,
07:00
and plant it at a crime scene. (Laughter)
07:02
But like DIYbio, the positive outcomes and
07:06
the potential for good for a study like that
07:11
far outweighs the risk.
07:14
Now, you might be asking yourself,
07:16
"Well, you know, what would I do in a biolab?"
07:18
Well, it wasn't that long ago we were asking, "Well,
07:22
what would anyone do with a personal computer?"
07:25
So this stuff is just beginning.
07:28
We're only seeing just the tip of the DNA iceberg.
07:30
Let me show you what you could do right now.
07:34
A biohacker in Germany, a journalist, wanted to know
07:37
whose dog was leaving little presents on his street?
07:41
(Laughter) (Applause)
07:44
Yep, you guessed it. He threw tennis balls
07:47
to all the neighborhood dogs, analyzed the saliva,
07:50
identified the dog, and confronted the dog owner.
07:53
(Laughter) (Applause)
07:57
I discovered an invasive species in my own backyard.
08:03
Looked like a ladybug, right?
08:07
It actually is a Japanese beetle.
08:09
And the same kind of technology --
08:11
it's called DNA barcoding, it's really cool --
08:13
You can use it to check if your caviar is really beluga,
08:15
if that sushi is really tuna, or if that goat cheese
08:20
that you paid so much for is really goat's.
08:23
In a biohacker space, you can analyze your genome
08:26
for mutations.
08:30
You can analyze your breakfast cereal for GMO's,
08:31
and you can explore your ancestry.
08:35
You can send weather balloons up into the stratosphere,
08:37
collect microbes, see what's up there.
08:40
You can make a biocensor out of yeast
08:43
to detect pollutants in water.
08:46
You can make some sort of a biofuel cell.
08:48
You can do a lot of things.
08:52
You can also do an art science project. Some of these
08:54
are really spectacular, and they look at social,
08:57
ecological problems from a completely different perspective.
09:01
It's really cool.
09:04
Some people ask me, well, why am I involved?
09:05
I could have a perfectly good career in mainstream science.
09:08
The thing is, there's something in these labs
09:12
that they have to offer society that you can't find
09:15
anywhere else.
09:18
There's something sacred about a space where
09:20
you can work on a project, and you don't have to justify
09:22
to anyone that it's going to make a lot of money,
09:25
that it's going to save mankind, or even that it's feasible.
09:28
It just has to follow safety guidelines.
09:31
If you had spaces like this all over the world,
09:34
it could really change the perception
09:37
of who's allowed to do biotech.
09:39
It's spaces like these that spawned personal computing.
09:41
Why not personal biotech?
09:45
If everyone in this room got involved,
09:48
who knows what we could do?
09:50
This is such a new area, and as we say back in Brooklyn,
09:52
you ain't seen nothin' yet. (Laughter)
09:55
(Applause)
09:59
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Ellen Jorgensen - Biologist and community science advocate
Ellen Jorgensen is at the leading edge of the do-it-yourself biotechnology movement, bringing scientific exploration and understanding to the public.

Why you should listen

In 2009, after many years of working as a molecular biologist in the biotech industry, together with TED Fellow Oliver Medvedik, Jorgensen founded Genspace, a nonprofit community laboratory dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology. Despite criticism that bioresearch should be left to the experts, the Brooklyn-based lab continues to thrive, providing educational outreach, cultural events and a platform for science innovation at the grassroots level. At the lab, amateur and professional scientists conduct award-winning research on projects as diverse as identifying microbes that live in Earth’s atmosphere and (Jorgensen’s own pet project) DNA-barcoding plants, to distinguish between species that look alike but may not be closely related evolutionarily. Fast Company magazine named Genspace one of the world’s “Top 10 innovative companies in education.”

More profile about the speaker
Ellen Jorgensen | Speaker | TED.com