Science TED Talks

Ellen Jorgensen on what you can do in a DIY biotech lab

“It’s a great time to be a molecular biologist,” Ellen Jorgensen says in today’s TED Talk, given at TEDGlobal 2012.

The realm of biotechnology is growing fast, she says, and advances are coming down the pipeline at a rapid clip. And yet, scientists aren’t so good at communicating to the public what is going on in biotech labs. Jorgensen wondered: could people find out for themselves?

“In 2009, I first heard about DIYbio. It’s a movement that advocates making biotechnology accessible to anyone—not just scientists and people in government labs,” explains Jorgensen. “The idea is if you open up science and allow diverse groups to participate, it can really stimulate innovation.”

Taken with the idea, Jorgensen and several friends founded Genspace, a community biotech lab in Brooklyn, New York. At Genspace, you can take classes like “Visualizing the Brain” and “Biohacker Boot Camp.” For a monthly membership fee, you can access their labs and create your own biotech projects, ranging from explorations of ancestry to art/science pieces. All around her, Jorgensen sees people discovering the wonder of science. Meanwhile, similar DIY biotech labs are popping up all across the globe.

And yet, as the press began to cover Genspace, they focused on the potential for someone to create “the next Frankenstein.” It’s a natural question upon hearing about DIY biotech labs: is there risk for biohazards at these labs?

As Jorgensen explains, of course. But she stresses that DIYbio labs work with safe organisms—not pathogens (“If you’re working with pathogens, you’re not part of the biohacker community, you’re part of bioterrorist community”)—and follow a strict code of ethics as well as local laws and regulations.

“Now you might be asking yourself, ‘What would I do in a bio lab?’” says Jorgensen. “It wasn’t that long ago we were asking, ‘What would anyone do with a personal computer?’ This is just the beginning. We’re only seeing the tip of the DNA iceberg … If everyone in this room got involved, who knows what we could do.”

To hear about some of the interesting—and hilarious—experiments being run at DIYbio labs, watch this talk. And stay tuned to the TED Blog for a stunning video of Jorgensen in Alaska, on a mission to barcode plants.