Posted: Friday, 30th March 2012
A MMU-led ‘garage science’ project has appeared on the BBC News at 10 and the Today Programme in a feature on the future of biology.
Science editor David Shukman reported from the Manchester MadLab where DIYBio sees amateur scientists collaborate with researchers from the university on experiments ranging from a “Manchester Microbe Map” to copying DNA.
In particular, the programme looks at the potential for ordinary people to obtain and use highly-sophisticated bio equipment which has tumbled in price.
It shows the MadLab group assembling a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine, which takes short strands of DNA and copies them.
Organised by Asa Calow from Madlab and Dr Martyn Amos, Dr Naomi Jacobs and Professor Joanna Verran from MMU, the project has been awarded nearly £30,000 from the Wellcome Trust Engaging Science scheme.
Proponents of ‘citizen science’ like Dr Amos say engaging people in DIY science is not only educational but democratises science, allowing more people to develop more ideas. Synthetic biology in particular has the potential to create new materials, new fuels, and medicines.
The BBC points out that amateur science could mean amateur outcomes and so called ‘bio-errors’ which raise concerns about dangerous new substances and their regulation.
But such concerns are countered by Amos and Calow who believe that science should not be a pursuit solely for experts.
Garage IT gave us internet
Asa argues that the IT revolution which gave us Microsoft and Apple was born from the likes of Steve Jobs and other ‘garage IT’ practitioners in the 1970s who were the pioneers of some of the most world-changing ideas.
“To talk only about the negatives of ‘garage biologists’ doing science is to fail to harness the creativity of a generation,” he says.
Dr Martyn Amos, a reader in novel computation, agrees saying MadLab activities follow standard scientific practices, and believes biosecurity issues are exaggerated: “The tools and techniques used in MadLab are no different from those used in university and other established laboratories.
“The concept that it could produce a superbug or something is as outlandish as thinking someone with a spanner could walk into an engineering yard and produce an atomic bomb,” he tells Shukman.
See also the ongoing debate on Synthetic Biology on Twitter