Post Mindfield 2011

Needless to say for many of my visitors, doubtless directed here by a surprisingly popular video of a DNA extraction I performed on a Banana at Mindfield, the event was a big hit for DIYbio/Amateur Biotech. Indeed, it was a hit from almost every angle I can personally imagine, although I'll save a full round-up of events for my personal blog (my mind was somewhat blown open by the festival). Here, I'll just share the highlights that might be relevant to DIYbioers.

Most obviously, I was caught by Smari of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative in the act of extracting DNA from a banana, kindly donated by the crepe stall at Mindfield (I offered to pay, but when they heard it was for science they insisted). I was, in fact, extracting the DNA to amuse myself; I had brought kits up in case I'd encourage hackers to do cheek-cell DNA extraction and electrophoretic separation of DNA with 9v batteries, and felt like using them for fun when time was running out on Sunday. The extraction went surprisingly well considering it was my first time performing it! And because it's 2011, here's an embedded video before you read further (if, indeed, you choose to):

Cathal Garvey demonstrating Do-it-Yourself DNA extraction in a tent from smarimc on Vimeo.

Next most obviously, I was hosting a workshop on the Friday, as mentioned in the prior post here. Eventbrite wasn't the primary means of booking; in fact, virtually nobody booked, but plenty arrived! I had a great time presenting the workshop to a really thoughtful and enthusiastic group, numbering about 14 or so. Some people I'd met before at the DIYbio meetup, others I met for the first time then.

The workshop talk is pretty streamlined for me at this point; it's as basic as I could make it, as it was designed for a mixed audience with potentially no biology background. I open with an introduction to the principals of unicellular biology; cell, genome, nucleus vs. no-nucleus, central dogma of DNA-RNA-Protein, evolution from common ancestor, and universal RNA code. From there, I progress to the history of Biotech: I'm fond of describing it as the oldest human technology, as we were long inventing species before civilisations appeared. Then I discuss the present day, with Biotech largely removed from the community and feared by most. Then I discuss the potential for biotech when profit is removed as the motivator; charity, environmental remediation, art, pure science. Finally I introduce the star of the workshop, Bacillus subtilis 168, and invite people to streak a prepared petri dish of PDA.

The workshop, as noted, went brilliantly. So brilliantly that we had to be kicked out of the park as it closed, and retired to public houses to continue discussions on DIYbio and Biohacking. There were engaging questions and ideas, more people streaked plates than at my prior workshops, and numbers and emails were exchanged prolifically.

Of course, that's not where it ended; a workshop is only footnote-worthy, but Mindfield was more participatory than your usual festival. Throughout panel discussions and workshops over the weekend, questions continued to be raised and further interest stoked in the potential of Biotech for charitable purposes or for “casual” explorations such as what might be conducted in a Hackerspace.

On the positives, there were people at the panels who asked whether DIYbio-scale synthetic biology might enable Indian farmers to create their own alternatives to restrictive patented crops (particularly those covered by consumer-abusive misuse of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies), enable enhanced carbon capture/storage via algae, or electricity production directly from algae or wastewater. There was a great deal of positive interest from unusual demographics; hippies*, anarchists and otherwise conservative folk.

On the negatives (such as negative was even present), there were of course several people who raised legitimate concerns about release of overcompetitive or environmentally damaging GMOs from indie labs. As it typical of polarised insititution-versus-the-people situations like GMO ethics to date, it is common to find that such arguments come pre-framed in such a way as to make defusing and discussion very difficult. This is everyone's fault, but it makes it hard to discuss things moderately; it means that, according to the usual script, I'm expected to say “No, GMOs are totally safe and never present any hazards, don't be silly”. Saying otherwise almost feels like it's derailing the argument due to the highly adapted arguments applied by either side.

In fact, I believe that genetic modification, as a tool, presents as many potential hazards as any other human technology, and that caution is warranted. However, the usual mainstay of anti-GMO arguments is the “Precautionary Principal”; that once a mistake is made, it's made forever, so every effort should be made to prevent any mistakes at all. That would make more sense to me if the world was in a stable or positive state, but as things stand we so desperately need solutions to our Oil addiction and rapid climate change that any potential avenues must be pursued. Besides, the risks are as overblown by the detractors as they are underestimated by the proponents; really, it's not that dangerous at all. It just calls for common sense and consideration.

Of course, this sort of discussion is exactly why Mindfield was so amazing; people from all walks of life and cognition were mingled and presented with one another's perspectives in the most rude and unambiguous fashion, in a context that warranted discussion and not denouncement. To everyone who encouraged DIYbio, prodded and worried at DIYbio, and generally talked DIYbio at the Mindfield event and afters, I salute and thank you.

And to the internet, thanks for taking such an interest in what I do. I solidly believe that the image of science as being a thing of cloistered institutions and goggled geniuses needs to be abolished, and I'm very happy to see DNA extraction proving so popular! Come back soon, I'll have more fun to share.

*Your host is something of a hippy himself, complete with baking-soda-as-shampoo, vegetarianism and a litany of greeny car alternatives. For the record, though most hippies would disagree with my enthusiasm for genetic modification as an environmentally beneficial solution, I love hippies.

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