BioFoundry: Open Source Microbiology and Biotechnology
By Alex Kelly
The following article was published in the Syntrophy Newsletter, Volume 18:
BioFoundry is Australia’s first community lab, representative of a new movement in applied biotechnology, which is distinct from the centralised power of big business and academia. BioFoundry is staffed by “biohackers” who promote an open-source science philosophy which shares a number of similarities to the computing revolution instigated by the change from mainframes to personal computing (i.e. lowered barriers to entry, freer access to information, and a constant drive to be better, faster and smaller.) Institutions such as BioFoundry are a natural consequence of the open source movement; they are a market response to consumer demand for safe and affordable bio-science experimentation.
Personally, BioFoundry was the big break in my biotechnological career, offering an alternative to the rigidity of the academic ladder, which promised at least a decade of slaving away at projects I had no passion for. “How wonderful it would be,” I thought, “to have the freedom to explore my own ideas and interests.” Enter Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow and his team at BioFoundry. Shoulder-length hair, industrial-strength flared-jeans and a host of tattoos … I was unsure why my biochemistry tutor had referred me to this hippy. Then he spoke, and painted a picture of a world where science was “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” A beautiful vision where open source science unlocks the capability of humanity to realise its dreams -where intellectual capital doesn’t lie dusty and unused in university labs, but is repurposed for common-good projects.
BioFoundry engages in a number of for-profit and not-for-profit initiatives, attempting to balance financial security with a passion for helping those underrepresented by scientific advancement. For example, Oligo2Insulin is an initiative to demonstrate the synthesis of biosimilar recombinant insulin for the generic pharmaceutical industry. Restrictive market control by three major companies prevents access to this life-saving drug for over 50 million people worldwide.
Rather than starting from scratch, we were able to obtain crucial research and plasmids from another open source science team based in America (Open Insulin), which has given us a big head start in our work. Environmental biotechnology is another field underrepresented by financial investment, with too little short-term gain for typically risk-averse shareholders. Meow is currently leading a team of volunteers investigating palm-oil production from E. coli. With 66 million tonnes consumed annually, increasing demand has swelled plantation coverage to over 27 million hectares worldwide. This is having a devastating effect in Malaysia and Indonesia. Large-scale microbiological synthesis offers an environmentally friendly alternative to this mass deforestation, as well as an opportunity to restore the ravaged natural habitats.
Paramount to understanding open source science is the realisation that it is not a deviation from modern channels of safety, regulation and intellectual property. Rather it is an appropriate response to the acceleration of general public access to scientific methodology, information and resources. Our supervisors and volunteers alike have a healthy respect for the value of institutions such as the FDA, EMA and OGTR, and we often host information evenings and debates to discuss the impact of legislative changes and decisions on our work. The BioFoundry lab has been granted PC1 approval, a responsibility that is not taken lightly – especially considering our ambitions to achieve PC2 sometime this year. We believe that open source science is a natural and healthy consequence of an emerging post-capitalist society rather than a threat to the integrity of the scientific method.