Biology for the People

August 8th, 2012 by Bex Brian

Genspace is the country’s first do-it-yourself lab.

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The do-it-yourself movement holds a sacred place in America. One need only think of Steve Jobs, the creator of the Apple computer tinkering away in his garage, to know what can be achieved.

Genspace, a do-it-yourself community biology lab in Brooklyn, New York, prides itself on being part of that same tradition. Opened last year, the lab offers a place for scientists to experiment outside the confines and restrictions of corporate labs and academia. It also offers workshops for students looking to expand their scientific knowledge, and for the odd dreamer with a passion for science but little practical skill.

The founding members of Genspace first found each other on a DIYbio Google group for amateur biologists. “I sent a message out saying let’s meet,” recalls Ellen Jorgensen, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology and serves as president of Genspace. The core group came together a couple of weeks later at a diner – Jorgensen; Russell Durrett from Polytech University; Sung Won Lin, a physics undergraduate, and Daniel Grushkin, a science writer. After that first meeting, they decided to move their ad hoc gathering to Grushkin’s Brooklyn living room where, using biology kits designed for high-school classrooms, they started to conduct experiments, like extracting DNA from strawberries.

Jorgensen has worked for 35 years in various biotech start-ups but refuses to label those early experiments as a little simplistic compared to her day job. “Not at all,” she says. “Scientists love to tinker. And it felt so freeing just to be doing science for science’s sake.”

Eventually, though, the limits of the equipment began to chaff. Around that time, Oliver Medvedik, a Harvard-trained biologist who now teaches at Harvard as well as Genspace, joined the founding members, along with the artist Nurit Bar-Shai. The idea for a community lab was born. Genspace, as they envisioned it, would be a place to learn, where anyone could come and stick their toe into the world of real science.

“I think every young scientist dreams of making their mark, curing cancer, or doing something that wins them the Nobel Prize,” Jorgensen says. “And while in my 30-year career I was involved in some great science, Genspace has given me a new purpose: opening science up to the people, making it accessible and fun. To that end I feel an enormous sense of responsibility.”

Their search for a permanent home led them to the Metropolitan Exchange building, a former bank on Flatbush Avenue. Artists were renting it out as studio space; Medvedik already had a space there for his own collaborative research in biological art and design. Jorgensen saw the choice of building as fortuitous. “We wanted there to be a connection between science and art, and this building can’t help but foster the flow of ideas.”

Stepping through the building’s front door into the dusty foyer is like stepping into an emporium of the city’s forgotten junk. Old filing cabinets still overflow with files that last mattered 40 years ago; disassembled mannequins, a penny-slot weight machine and much more stand idly by. As luck would have it, the owner of the building was a pack rat. As the founders of Genspace first went about setting up the lab, they found plenty of items they could cull from various storage rooms. All around them the building positively hummed with creative energy.

At the moment, Genspace offers two workshops on most weekends. Medevik conducts a course on synthetic biology, the science of engineering living organisms to behave like biological machines. Among other things, participants learn to make bacteria smell like bananas. For her part, Jorgensen teaches a workshop on how to read one’s own mitochondrial DNA, which then allows participants to determine their geographic ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA, as opposed to nuclear DNA, which is a mixture of genetic material inherited from both parents, passes from mother to offspring unaltered, so it provides a clear trace of maternal origins going back to the Neanderthals.

Attendees of Jorgensen’s workshop ride up an elevator to a floor that’s as crammed as the foyer. The margin of the space had been cordoned off as work areas for other renters, using everything from plastic sheeting to bookshelves listing with architectural models. Genspace occupies the central area, with one large marble table around which the participants sat. A glassed-off area holds all the lab equipment.

On this particular day, five other people have come to take the workshop, including two art students from NYU, two middle-aged men with an amateur’s interest in biology, and a shy young college student. Once we get settled, Jorgensen hands around a worksheet of steps we’d be taking to isolate cells from our cheeks, from which we could gather up mitochondrial DNA. Slowly she walks us through written instructions like “Resuspend the cell by vortexing” and “Examine the resuspended cell in the tube.” Here, the mysterious is gracefully demystified. We are instantly engaged in real science, and as we carefully measure out various solutions into different test tubes that would eventually isolate our gathered cells, we pepper Jorgensen with questions and comments. Although we all have just met, we feel a shared spirit of discovery – and the sheer pleasure of learning what our cells could tell us about our genetic histories and ourselves.

Genspace may be the first do-it-yourself lab in the country. “But as word gets out and people realize they can have the opportunity to experiment with real hands-on science,” Jorgensen says, “I doubt we’ll be the last.”

Bex Brian recently completed her second novel, Ten Block Radius, and writes a blog called www.bexbrian.com.