How synthetic biology can benefit from open source

How synthetic biology can benefit from open source

Posted by: Kshithij Dhyanastha
Category :Free & Open Source



The origin of synthetic biology can be traced back to the early twentieth century. However, its rapid development as a specialized discipline started just over a decade ago. Synthetic biology basically involves the construction of new biological parts, devices and systems or altering and redesigning existing natural biological systems for global welfare. Simply put, it is the application of engineering principles in the basic components of biology.


 We all know who a hacker is. A hacker is an intruder in the digital world. Then who is a biohacker? Someone who hacks into biological networks?  Apparently, that’s partially true. However, unlike the term hacker, biohacker has more positive connotations. Perhaps, the only thing a hacker and biohacker have in common is genius. If you try to look at the term biohacker within the light of your understanding of the term hacker, the former term may appear to be more of a misnomer because in reality there’s nothing illegal about biohacking, at least not yet!

Biohacking is a relatively new practice which involves ordinary people exploring biology in personal laboratories. It is often called do-it-your-self biology. But the concept is highly interesting. Like Ron Shigeta puts it, biohacking gives you “a freedom to explore biology, kind of like you would explore good fiction.”  Don’t get the wrong idea that it is directionless amateur biology. Biohackers are not confined to doing basic biological experiments; they explore advanced biological considerations like the complex DNA and how different genetic make-ups affect the growth and functioning of different living beings.

 Paradigm Shift

One can say with emphasis that open source is the latest consequential ideology that the web denizens have welcomed with open arms. Not surprisingly, it is a collaborative and democratic approach which encourages the entire world to become participants in the process of global progress and development. There is no doubt that this paradigm shift is not an isolated change happening only in the digital world. From politics to biohacking, democratization is now an all-pervading philosophy.

 Bone of Contention

 Many synthetic biologists argue that unrestrained openness should be the watchword in their discipline’s future. This would mean offering all open source initiatives an unreserved welcome. But not all synthetic biologists agree with this outlook. Some insist that such an outlook is clearly radical and not in a good way. They feel that rigorous control on intellectual property and patent protection is imperative for innovation and that such restrictive agreements are the signs of the world’s most advanced societies.

 Showers of Blessing

 Although synthetic biologists have begged to differ when it comes to the issue of open source, biohackers are chanting “open source” in unison. This is because open source brings them down-to-earth solutions to all their problems and encourages them in their arduous pursuit of progressing the discipline of synthetic biology. Let’s take a look at what open source has in store for the biohackers community:


  • OpenPCR: First of all, biohackers need to set up personal laboratories which involve using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to copy or amplify small segments of DNA or RNA. This cannot be accomplished with amateurish tinkering. OpenPCR is an economical yet accurate thermocycler that let biohackers build PCR and reliably control it to carry out reactions for DNA detection, sequencing and other related applications. It is made of an open source design and is available for $649.
  • BioBricks Foundation: Without organizational support and encouragement, biohackers cannot overcome any ordeals in their long altruistic pursuit. BioBricks Foundation envisions a future where fundamental scientific information is freely available to everyone to promote open and ethical innovation. This foundation brings together engineers, scientists, innovators, attorneys and even ordinary citizens to integrate sustainability with scientific research and applied technology in the interest of the general public.
  • OpenPlant: As scientific knowledge proliferates, each subject gets divided into specialized disciplines which are further branched out due to the influx of information. Synthetic biology by nature is multi-disciplinary and each concerned discipline will have specialized needs and demands. There are open source initiatives for specialized disciplines. An example is OpenPlant which aims to foster interdisciplinary interaction and advance specialized knowledge in the field of plant synthetic biology.
  • Cambia: An essential feature of open source is collaboration, and undoubtedly biohackers would know the actual value of collaborative initiatives. BiOS is an initiative of Cambia which defines a framework to collaboratively solve challenges faced by many biohackers. CambiaLabs is another initiative of Cambia designed to enable invention and sharing of contemporary biological technologies. It strives to make technologies “available to anyone to improve or use in new innovations, both commercial and non-commercial”.
  • iGEM Registry: The iGEM Registry is a public repository of standard biological parts including reporter proteins, plant chassis and cellulose-related parts. The users can explore and discover new parts and even build upon the work done by iGEM teams and labs.

Before Wrapping Up

 All these musings boil down to one simple question. Will synthetic biology powered by open source protocols and designs be the powerful force of development in the future or will it misfire, leading to futile attempts and causing havoc in the world? What are your opinions on the matter? Leave your comments below.

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