DIY Biology

Fall 2015 | Jenny Ho | Fine Arts C'16

For the final lecture, the topic was DIY (Do It Yourself) biology, one of the several contexts for engaging in biological design and bioart. We discussed the challenges and the implications of working in a DIY setting, as well as how to access resources. 

What is DIY biology?

DIY biology is taking the study of biology outside of traditional research institutions. Individuals, groups, and small organizations work with the same methods and tools, but they are in spaces independent from universities, corporations, and the like. Also, DIYers generally focus on problems not in mainstream research and academia.

Given these qualities, DIY biology can be thought of as a counterculture social movement.


Since DIY biology is an emerging field, two main issues to consider are accessibility and regulation.

Unequal accessibility between established institutions and DIYers is a problem, because of 1) high costs of equipment and materials and 2) paywalls for research papers. Mainstream institutions have funding to cover the costs, so knowledge and resources are clustered there. Open-source and commercially available products are being developed to counter the unequal distribution of resources. These resources will be described in greater detail later in the post.

Regulating DIY biology is challenging, because there is not much infrastructure outside of mainstream science. In a DIY context, purposes range from setting up experiments to tinkering with materials. Tinkering allows for more open-ended intentions and unpredictable results, especially if individuals are acting independently without oversight. Harmful uses of biology, such as creating new viruses, adds to the risks to public safety.

Designers and artists have no control over what is being developed, but they have the luxury of having an awareness to respond. They can be critical by discussing the political, ethical, and commercial effects of new developments.


The rest of the lecture was about breaking down the broad term of “resources” into specific categories and examples. These are open-source equivalents to what is in research institutions, but few products, services, etc., match what is in research institutions in terms of quality.


Gaudi Labs: In addition to providing lab space, Gaudi Labs has developed a set of lab equipment with


BioBots: Biobot 1 is desktop 3D bioprinter that builds living tissues from human cells. Bento Lab is a portable biology laboratory with a PCR machine, a centrifuge and a gel electrophoresis unit.

biorealize: The Microbial Design Studio is a countertop biofabrication machine that automates the process of microbial design.


Genspace (New York): This nonprofit has a community biotechnology lab open to anyone wanting to pursue their own biology projects.

BioCurious (Silicon Valley): Similar to Genspace, it is a community biology lab for people of varying backgrounds in science.

Symbiotica (Australia): Part of the University of Western Australia it is a research lab dedicated to the integration of art, design, and life sciences. (website): In addition to online resources and networks of DIYers, has hosted international workshops, hackathons, and labs.

Aalto University (Finland): The university has academic programs for biological design and other interdisciplinary studies between science and design.

DIYbio (website): This online community for DIY biologists that has information about local DIY spaces, hardware, safety, and more.


Synbiota: It has tinker kits of standardized DNA parts for users to design their own genetic circuits.

DIY CRISPR: Dr. Josiah Zayner, from NASA's synthetic biology lab, is developing DIY gene-editing kits.

Addgene: Addgene is a nonprofit organization with a library of published plasmids for research use and an online store to order plasmids.

DNA 2.0: It has a range of materials used in synthetic biology, like cell strains, proteins, and reagents.

Design Tools

Autodesk: Clotho is a simulation software for synthetic biology developed by the Programmable Matter research group.

Audiences and Communities

Ars Electronica (Austria): Even though it is a center for electronic arts, there is a space for those interested in synthetic biology and biological design.

Biofabricate: The annual Biofabricate conference brings together speakers and participants from different industries, such as architecture, biotech, consumer electronics, sports, etc.

Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA): There are writing opportunities for those interested in science and its cultural impact.

International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM): It hosts an international synthetic biology competition for students, a lab program, and a registry of standardized biological materials.

Literature Recommendations

Biopunk, Marcus Wohlsen

Eugenic Design, Christina Cogdell