CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA, SEPTEMBER 27, 2015 — Not unlike the booming technology companies that launched in Silicon Valley garages decades ago, the next step in the evolution of synthetic biology is being built by citizen scientists in their homes or communal labs. One local man is hoping to bring this new wave of scientific exploration to Charlottesville.
Scientists and science enthusiasts are breaking from traditional laboratory environments to practice a variety of scientific disciplines in their garages and kitchens, conducting their own projects and using their own hardware. As this movement continues to grow, lab spaces for members of the community have begun popping up in densely populated cities around the country — and soon, Charlottesville may have one of its own for do-it-yourself biology, or biohacking.
University of Virginia graduate Shaun Moshasha is still nailing down the details on a space for Charlottesville Open Bio Labs, a “community bioscience center” aimed at engaging local residents in the practice of biohacking. He started the nonprofit organization with Michael Lake in early 2014 and has been slowly bringing together the area’s scientific community through meet-ups and, just weeks ago, a foray into experimentation in the form of an inaugural cloning class.
“We want Charlottesville Open Bio Labs to enhance the accessibility of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and bioscience to everybody — make people realize that it’s not as daunting or inaccessible as people think,” Moshasha said.
Moshasha got his start in the field after his time spent with U.Va.’s team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine, a worldwide synthetic biology competition for undergraduate students. In iGEM, student teams are given biological parts and work during the summer to build and test biological systems in living cells.
Moshasha said that while going to iGEM competitions, he would see citizen laboratories popping up and often got a chance to meet the people running them, giving him a taste of what he’s now trying to bring to Charlottesville.
While working with iGEM and completing undergraduate and master’s degrees at U.Va., Moshasha began research with U.Va. working under a federal grant. But when that funding dried up, Moshasha decided to explore a new avenue for engaging in research.
When working under federal grants, Moshasha said, “you’re dictated on what the granting institutions will give you.” The beauty of biohacking, he said, is the autonomy to perform individual projects and research based on preference or interest. The movement has grown in recent years thanks to two primary factors: the lowering of costs of scientific exploration and what Moshasha calls “the democratization of knowledge.”
“It’s cheaper to sequence DNA, it’s cheaper to synthesize it, more and more lab equipment is coming out that’s much cheaper, people are actually going in and hacking lab equipment,” Moshasha said. “And it’s becoming easier to learn everything you want on the Internet.”
That democratization of knowledge is again similar to the dawn of hacking in the computer world, albeit more prohibitive, Moshasha said.
“The difference between the computer movement and the biohacking movement is that with the computer movement, all you need is a personal computer,” he said. “With biohacking, sure you can learn all this theory online, but you still need the equipment, you still need the space, you still need the re-agents to play with.”
That’s where the idea of an open community lab comes in. Even with falling equipment prices, it can still be “costly” and “daunting” to an individual, Moshasha said. The lab helps to spread out that cost among interested parties who do not “have to be part of a big institution in some way in order to get access.”
Under Moshasha’s vision for Open Bio Labs, people can become members of the lab to gain access to lab space, advice, equipment, biological re-agents and anything else they require that can be ordered through biotechnology companies. Membership dues will cover the center’s overhead costs. Moshasha intends to teach classes at the center, which also will provide him with a salary.
Keith Kozminski, co-adviser of U.Va.’s iGEM team and associate professor of biology, said that with the citizen laboratories movement, Moshasha is “catching the wave as it’s cresting.”
Kozminski said a challenge for Moshasha is the Charlottesville area’s low population compared with more bustling scientific metropolises such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Moshasha said he sees that limitation himself, but both men agreed that the “intellectual density” of the area is promising for the venture.
“People here are smart, people are active, they want to do things, they want to use their minds and their hands and engage,” Moshasha said. “They want to go outside their traditional disciplines and learn new things.”
Kozminski added that if anyone could rally the community behind such a venture, it would be Moshasha, whom he oversaw on the iGEM team during Moshasha’s time there in 2012 and 2013.
“Shaun was the person who relished knocking on the doors of top administrators at the university to inform them, encourage them, excite them about synthetic biology,” Kozminski said. “Their support over the years has been consistent, and I think that’s in part due to Shaun’s outreach to them. … So I think right from the very beginning, in some ways, he was a community organizer.”
At the center’s inaugural class in August, about 20 local residents — some U.Va. students, some simply interested parties — came for a lesson in cloning DNA cells. Moshasha said he felt the class went well: “I finished lecturing about the science in 20 minutes, and we had 40 minutes of questions. That’s a really good showing.” Indeed, the questions flowed at the event and, by the end, a local science teacher already was asking Moshasha about a possible partnership with his teachers for a professional development course.
Jeff Schwalm, a teacher at Sutherland Middle School, praised the class and said he was interested in having Moshasha train other teachers on biology applications that have become more commonplace in the past decade.
“With the advancements in technology, what scientists are able to do in a very basic lab setup is absolutely amazing, and I want to bring some of those experiences to my classroom,” Schwalm said. “Being exposed to some of these applications will also prepare students for what they will be working with at the next level.”
“My hope is that Shaun and Open Bio Labs would provide the background knowledge for the teachers, who would then turn around and help facilitate students through this process.”
Others shared Schwalm’s enthusiasm — local builder and designer Steve Hunter called the class “fascinating,” saying, “it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but I don’t have a background in biology, but I think this is a movement that is going to change the world.”
The inaugural class was set in a lab that is borrowed for now, but Moshasha is working to lease a more permanent space.
The room for growth in the venture is enormous, Moshasha said, as synthetic biology spans a range of scientific disciplines, and the lab could serve as a wide academic resource for locals.
At the same time, commercial products can easily be developed in the space, as they have in similar incubation-style community labs across the country, Moshasha said.
For him, putting together the lab is all about the love of science and what it can do for the world.
“I believe that people, when they take hold of the technology and really apply themselves to it, they can make really fantastic products, and impactful products, as well,” Moshasha said. “I want to introduce this new medium of creation into the world.”
By DEAN SEAL The Daily Progress
Posted Richmond Times Dispatch, 9/27/15