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Biotech Science Technology

Do It Yourself Biology Research, Past and Present 108

Harperdog writes "Laura Kahn has a great article about the long and fascinating history of do-it-yourself research, from Darwin and Mendel to present day. From the article: 'Welcome to the new millennium of do-it-yourself (DIY) biology. Advances in technology in the twenty-first century have enabled anybody, with the desire and the disposable income, to build rather sophisticated laboratories in their own homes. Entire communities have even materialized to promote these efforts -- like the thousands of amateur biologists who contribute to, a website "dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers."'"
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Do It Yourself Biology Research, Past and Present

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  • Re:Materials (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @02:24PM (#40361847) Journal

    Depends on what you're doing. If you're doing PCR to screen a large number of transformants, or if you're using the dNTPs to synthesize your own oligos, you'll go through a lot.

    IMO, this is where the focus of DIY bio should be for a while. Try and find out how to get expensive reagents for reasonable prices. dNTPs are just one example. What are these people staining their gels with anyway? Ethidium bromide is somewhat toxic, and Sybr safe is fairly expensive.

    Also, are people doing histology at home? You might be able to produce your own antibodies, if you keep rabbits. But can you conjugate fluorescent markers to them?

    What about western blots? Is polyacrylamide available to the hobbyist?

    I guess what I'm saying is that there's a lot that can be done, but also a lot that can't be done at home on the cheap. We're still in the phase where the most important research is on techniques, not biology.

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @02:33PM (#40361981) Homepage

    Hobbyist science has always been part of the mix, sometimes an important part of the mix. Some examples:
    * Isaac Newton was actually an alchemist by trade - the physics and math were basically just fun side projects.
    * Albert Einstein published some of his most important stuff while working as a patent clerk.
    * Grote Reber was one of the key pioneers in radio astronomy working with a telescope he'd built in his backyard.

    Now, I'll grant you that often amateur science is, well, amateurish, but occasionally an amateur scientist strikes gold, and I see no reason to discourage people from messing with it. They aren't going to be as good at it as the professionals, but at worst they accomplish nothing except have a little fun, and at best they add something to the scientific knowledge of humanity. Another way of looking at the argument: 100 pros could perhaps come up with 15 useful results a year, while 10000 amateurs could perhaps come up with 2. The pros are obviously much better than the amateurs, but we're all better off with 17 useful results than 15 useful results.

  • Re:Materials (Score:5, Insightful)

    by flyingsquid ( 813711 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @02:42PM (#40362089)
    It may well be correct to say that the number of amateur scientists has increased, and the tools available to an amateur scientist are pretty impressive (compare the computing power and software of an average laptop to a university machine 50 years ago). But the trend is clear- amateurs are playing less and less of a role.

    The biggest reason is that it's simply harder to make a discovery now than it was 100 or 200 years ago. Back in the time of Galileo, you could do cutting-edge physics research by dropping two wooden balls of different masses. The total cost of the research would be trivial and it would take you a few minutes to conduct. These days, cutting-edge physics means an experimental device like the Large Hadron Collider, hundreds of people, years of time, and billions of dollars. Cutting edge was within the reach of anybody in 1564, now it can only be accomplished with the support of a large nation. The same goes for astronomy. Galileo was able to build a telescope that was more powerful than anything out there, point it at the moon and planets, and see things people had never seen before. These days, doing cutting-edge astronomy research requires a space telescope or an observatory, again costing millions or billions of dollars, putting cutting-edge astronomy research beyond the reach of an amateur. The amount of expertise has also gone up- science has advanced so much that it may take 10 years of higher education just to become familiar with the science that has already been done, before you can start actually making major discoveries yourself. That kind of time commitment is difficult for an amateur working in their off-hours to match.

    As a result, the vast majority of scientific discoveries are made by full-time scientists employed by universities, research institutions, or corporations, working in teams, and supported by their institutions or large granting agencies. It's not unique to science, we see this with technology as well. Back in the day, Orville and Wilbur Wright put together the world's most advanced aircraft in their bicycle workshop; these days huge teams of engineers labor at Boeing or Skunkworks to put together the newest plane. The Apple I was put together by hobbyists, the latest iPad involves huge teams of designers and programmers working in collaboration with Chinese factories. As a field advances, it's harder and harder for someone with limited resources and limited time to make a major contribution.

  • by tburkhol ( 121842 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @03:49PM (#40362859)

    First, I'd say that fundamental advances are changes in the basic way we look at things. I think they happen most when someone is not encumbered by the existing dogma, and open whole new areas in which even professional scientists lack expertise. What were the limits of evolutionary biology before Darwin? Very little "science" actually happens that way - most of it is the somewhat plodding refinement and clarification of existing theory, and professional scientists are definitely better suited to make those kinds of advances. Of course, it's hard to distinguish "revolutionary" from "crackpot," and having a professional reputation helps in that distinction.

    Second, I would say that it is not even important for a home scientist to make truly novel findings or advances. I think the principle value in home study of biology, or chemistry, or anything else, is to make that knowledge personal. If you think science is interesting, then go do it! Millions of people play basketball, despite having no chance of ever making it a career. Millions play guitar, or piano, without any ambition to give concerts. Or paint. Or write. We don't mock any of those people, or condescend to them like they're wasting their time. Or tell them they'd be better off reading reports of the NBA playoffs than actually going out on the court. Why should discovering the world around you be restricted to people who can push at the recognized boundaries of knowledge?

  • Re:Materials (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday June 18, 2012 @05:20PM (#40363807) Homepage

    You certainly could do classical E. coli or phage genetics. All you need is some growth media, pipettes and petri dishes. I'm not sure how that would translate into cutting edge research but it's doable.

    You could potentially do some screening / growth requirements for some of the millions of new viruses that are floating about. These seem poorly characterized and again, it's rather classical microbiology.

    But yes, modern molecular biology is going to be tough without an account at one of the many vendors of probes, etc.

    One thing that does strike me is the sheer number of companies marketing sophisticated molecular probes / cell lines / antibiodies etc. In my day we had to make them de novo (and cut the glass for our gels and purify the acrylamide and make our own electricity....). If you had deep enough pockets, you could get pretty sophisticated very quickly.

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