London Biohackspace is a community run molecular biology and microbiology lab based at the London Hackspace. Our lab has been developed around the principles of the DIYbio code of ethics; its primary purpose is to provide access to lab equipment and bench space, for use in a safe manner, for individual or collaborative projects.The strength of the biohacking and DIYbio community is the diversity of its members. London Biohackspace hopes to encourage enthusiastic amateurs and professionals with backgrounds in a broad mix of professions such as artists, engineers, biologists and programmers to carry out innovative bioscience projects.
In late 2010 'Bugs', a molecular biologist and member of the London Hackspace, which at the time was based in Hoxton, gave a talk at the hackspace called 'Intro to Biohacking'. After that a group formed, meeting weekly and organising themselves using the hackspace wiki. Bugs helped initially with sorting out some equipment and starting some projects, but after he left the group was largely made up of amateurs, mostly doing experiments trying to extract DNA, PCR it and analyse it using gel electrolysis. These sorts of experiments went on in 2011 and 2012. Here's a BBC video segment from this time. We also registered officially as a company so we could purchase reagents more easily, and settled on our name as the London Biohackers / Biohackspace. We collaborated with UCL's 2012 igem team, helping to make a 'public biobrick'. In 2013 the London Hackspace moved to larger premises in Hackney, taking the biohackers with it. Here we had more space and managed to obtain some more equipment, and we took part in igem 2014 and 2015.
Me: Tell me about yourself, the team you worked with to London Biohackspace and why did you build them?
Will: I was working as a web developer when I joined the London biohackspace. I didn't have experience in biology but always thought it was interesting. The others came from a variety of backgrounds, e.g. art, social science, programming, and some biologists
Tommasso: I am a molecular biologist and I have been in this field for at least 10 years. I work for King's College London as a researcher in neurodegenerative disorders. Unfortunately the job is taking a toll on my spare time therefore, in these days, I am not involved with the biohackers as much as I'd like to. At the moment I support the group by taking part in the committee that approves new projects and that gives guidelines on health and safety.
Me: How did you find the space and funding?
Will: The London Hackspace already existed and we started as a subgroup of them. London hackspace is funded from membership contributions. Biohackers paid a small amount extra each month for equipment
Tommasso: As Will said, we personally fund our projects by putting a weekly contribution in the biohackers' kitty plus we look for donations in the form of secondhand lab equipment. Our budget (at least until I was actively participating) has never been big but we had the fortune of getting the support of different labs around London in the form of consumables and old equipments. Plus we have really skilled "hackers" that fix/transform/build equipments for us.
Me: Was building the London Biohackspace community hard? Who is/was part of the community?
Will: We let people find us online then come to us. We also did a few outreach events Tommasso: The London Biohackspace is a heterogenous community made of a wide variety of people that come and go. Sometime getting some big project going can be hard but the diversification of opinions and experiences is also the strength of the group. I had awesome conversations with the biohackers and discussing scientific topics is always extremely engaging. Especially for someone like me that is used to the "old fashioned" scientist talk.
Me: What types of equipment did you find you needed and what were the challenges you encountered?
Will: We obtained some equipment off the internet, some from old labs throwing out stuff, and some we made ourselves
Tommasso: I think the biggest challenge has been moving to the new Hackspace site and build a new lab from scratch. I had so much fun. It has been a challenge but also a big reward: I was extremely satisfied with the result and I am still very proud of what we achieved.
Me: What types of projects have you and the London Biohackspace team worked on?
Will: We started doing DNA analysis using PCR and gels. Now there are various projects going on including stuff for igem, but I don't know what they are exactly.
Me: What do you see as the future for biohacking in London and globally?
Will: As for the future, my personal opinion is that biohacking will continue to be a hobby and educational experience for people, but I'm skeptical of big commercialisation opportunities because of regulational restrictions and continuing large funding requirements for big projects.
Tommasso: For the future of biohacking: I think it will grow as a hobby and it will have a really important role in bringing people in touch with science. Nowadays there is a lot of science talk in the news and on the web but the readers are usually misinformed. Science seems to be a fast-paced, highly successful discipline where progress moves at the speed of light but the reality is quite the opposite. As any biohacker (and scientist) can tell you, the scientific process is made, mostly, by a slow pace and continuous failures. I think that giving the opportunity to everyone to try hands-on the lab experience is the biggest result the biohackers community has achieved.