Friday, August 19, 2011

DIYBio Los Angeles: Interview with Romie Littrell

Romie Littrell, founder of the DIYBio Los Angeles was a visiting artist/researcher at the National University of Singapore this Summer.  During his visit in Singapore, Romie gave informative talks and demonstrations sharing his views on the DIYBio movement -- the convergence of the public, hacking, science, art, and biology.  He was kind enough to answer some of our burning questions about DIYBio LA and the DIYBio movement at large that we'd like to share with you.

Rommie Littrell (left) leading a biohacking workshop at the Singapore hackerspace


Tim: First things first, Romie, can you give us the background on DIYBio Los Angeles?  How did it start, its mission, etc?

Romie: Before heading to LA I was a part of the first meetings for DIYbio in Boston a couple years earlier, and starting another group was always in the back of my mind while I was a bioengineering grad at UCLA. The biggest problem with LA compared to other large cities is that it’s spread over such a wide area. Getting and sustaining an initial critical mass of likeminded people is a challenge. Fortunately, Chris Kelty at the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics brought together DIYbio people from all over the country at his Outlaw Biology conference on campus. I realized that there wouldn’t be a better opportunity to get that initial seed of people and registered a workshop for the last day of the conference with the sole purpose of keeping the momentum going and start a permanent organization.

With 5 or so core members we started our meetup group and began the coffee shop meeting strategy and gradually attracted more members until finally deciding to look for a permanent home. The best model for DIYbio groups so far has been to join an existing hackerspace usually focused on unrelated things like software, electronics, and fabrication. In addition to providing stability there’s often a significant overlap in interest between members and, in our case with our current location at Null Space Labs, their expertise has given our low-tech hardware goals a boost.

To sum up the already brief mission statement on our site, it’s simply the maintenance of a space with the resources we need to pursue our interests. Aside from that it’s really up to each person to engage in projects that appeal to them. Perhaps more than anything, it’s a place for people to learn from and work with likeminded people on topics that stem from interest and curiosity rather than the stipulations of job, a grant, or a desire for a degree.

All the tools of genetic engineering, sous vide water bath at 42 degrees C and a smart phone for timing exposure cycles.

Tim: What are the challenges that are faced by DIYbio community?

Romie: The main challenges expanding the community and work with DIYbio are mostly cultural and political. In addition to the misconception that it’s not possible to do biology outside academic and industrial institutions, there’s a cultural undertone that it’s a “bad” thing. The new and unknown are already challenging enough to develop without having to dispel negative connotations from the media and movies. However, I think the broad range of appeal for bio-related projects compared to other comparable hobbyist pursuits make it less of a fad and rather an inevitability. Pushing through the slow beginning can still be frustrating when resources and interest are not where they should be, however.

There’s also the political threat of a crackdown on the tools of DIYbio in the US. For example, the anti-GMO laws in place in Europe unfortunately trickle down to small private users. Transforming a bacteria to do something useful or interesting, a classic goal for many DIY biologists, requires going through regulatory hurdles that may dissuade a hobbyist. Opinions about if this should happen here are all over the place. A recent presidential inquiry ( implied that the freedom of DIY groups may decrease as capability rises, but that the efforts of biohackers may also be integral to advancement of the field and in its security.

Romie preparing supplies for hacking bacteria

Tim: Do you have any predictions for the DIY Bio movement for the next 5 years in terms of types of projects that may come about, trends, etc?

Romie: In the past two years, new DIYbio groups and their various projects have been popping up in cities all over the globe. The success and failure of these initiatives are still anyone’s guess, and I think the real disruptive projects have yet to begin. In the short term the obvious niche that needs to be filled is a source of tools and information to feed the new demand. Distributors for reagents and kits aimed at individuals and educators rather than labs are currently hard to come by, and which procedures make more sense to ironically outsource back to a commercial lab isn’t always obvious. The IP framework for products and discoveries that eventually arise will also needs to be established, particularly in regard to publishing.

I’m more involved in making art and curiosities than discoveries and products, however. The influence on culture through art can accomplish as much a shift in public and political opinion as scientific debate. Biological tools in the hands of artists are becoming more common and I think we’ll see an increase in simple public awareness of the real possibilities.

Romie showing the contents of a single use DNA analysis kit that is becoming a popular way for people to learn more about their genetic code including examining predispositions for diseases.

Tim: What suggestions do you have for someone who might be interested in learning about biotech and perhaps a way for them to get started at home?

Romie: The easiest way to start is to look around at how biology is already present in our lives. We actually do biology and biochemistry all the time when we cook. Taking the step further to understand why recipes are they way they are leads to the science of proteins, oils, and sugars, all of which are products and building blocks of biochemistry. Molecular gastronomists are just are just taking things lab scientists already know and applying it to creating new and amazing dishes. If you’re more crafty you may even bake bread, brew beer, or have a garden. These hobbies with all the tricks and tools that make them possible are actually the heart of biology.

The best way to do anything new is to make it personal since investing a significant amount of time and energy is usually necessary. Learning takes time and things don’t always go perfectly in the beginning. Something that gets overlooked way too often is that DIY projects don’t have to result in more money or new data. Creation is an end of its own. I love to tinker and to find out how things work. Other people may want to cure a disease in their family where, for whatever reason, there isn't an economic incentive to fund research. Selfish or selfless, finding that personal pursuit is the key to developing something meaningful.

Though we call it “Do It Yourself”, for many reasons finding a community of interested people is always my first advice. If you’re not in a large city this might be a challenge, but there are always online forums if local biohackers are not easily found. is a great list with people eager to help those who will put the effort in to learn. If it seems like you’re alone, just starting an open ended meetup or online group will give others a way to find you.

Thank you, Romie, for your time and for sharing your views and suggestions about the DIYBio movement!!!

Related links:

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Artist: Joel Ong
Time: Sunday, July 10 · 4:30pm - 7:30pm
Where: John Curtin Gallery
Event by: Symbiotica Lab
Original posting: NANOVIBRANCY

Nanovibrancy explores nanoscale activity through sound by amplifying the oscillations at the surface of a model tympanic membrane in real time.

The culmination of his Masters in Biological Art degree, Joel Ong will present a sound piece which repurposes the Atomic Force Microscope as a super‐sensitive listening device.

The AFM listens by scanning the surface vibrations on a silk membrane. The sample, currently researched in otology as a graft material for chronic eardrum perforations, is probed in extension of its research value, creating an audible documentation of cellular activity in situ.

Moving from the laboratory into the art gallery, the project shifts the observations of matter at the nanoscale from the scientific eye to the artistic ear, amplifying the resonances of fact and fiction, purity and interference through a site‐specific confluence of nano‐ and human‐scale listening.

In so doing, Nanovibrancy asks; "what is the experience of listening at the nanoscale?" Visitors acquire a first‐hand experience of the vibrancy of matter at its smallest perspectival scale.

Nanovibrancy is an ArtScience project realised at SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia and has the generous support of the Ear Science Institute of Australia, the Nanochemistry Research Institute and the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University.

Facebook event page with further details:

Sunday, June 5, 2011

2 exclusive interviews coming soon!

Please keep a look out for two exclusive interviews coming soon.  Here are the details while you wait~

First up will be the interview with Ryan Romie Littrell, founder of the SoCal DIYBio, was a visiting fellow in Singapore hosted by Professor Denisa Kera at the National University of Singapore.  During his stay, Romie conducted a two part workshop at the Singapore hackerspace teaching attendees the tools and practices of synthetic biology.  Romie is part of a growing group of scientists who are fostering the interest in synthetic biology among the members of public, and democratizing the world of biotechnology.  Stay tuned for the interview with Romie for his thoughts on the future of DIYBio and the citizen scientist.

Romie guiding participants in the workshop, at one point using a hot bath to encourage their bacteria to take up new genetic code.

Shortly after that, and staying with the theme of democratization of technology, is an interview with Thomas Gokey (visual artist) and Meg Backus (public librarian) who are two innovative thinkers who share their ideas on 3D printing (including bio), fab labs, public libraries, and how these will come together to revolutionize our future.  They taught a class titled, "Innovation in Public Libraries" at Syracuse University which has an inspiring mission to re-invent libraries as not only an institution for the storage and retrieval of documents, but as an institution that can be hacked and shaped to meet the needs of today and the future.

Stay tuned for these interesting interviews!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bacteria hailstone conspiracy!

picture of hailstones presumably created by bacteria taken from the BBC article noted below

This news article on the BBC website mentions recent research findings that suggest bacteria can be the cause for precipitation!  That extends the reach of bacteria into a realm that few would have guessed was possible.  Go bio!  Hmmm..... as a designer challenge, it would be interesting to design a genetically modified bacteria that causes for special hailstone shapes. 

My votes:
1) hailstones that create a whistling sound as they fall
2) hailstones in the shape of an airfoil--with a snowball tip  (hopefully a safer design than jarts!)
3) hailstones with a special crystal pattern that reflects various colors of light.

Any ideas?  Send me an email at

Original news article:

Thomas Heatherwick: designer of the "seed cathedral"

Seed Cathedral - UK Pavilion at the World Expo, Shanghai 2010.  Photo: Iwan Bann (available at

The recently released Ted Talk video of designer Thomas Heatherwick provides background, motivation, and discussion of his designs inspired by nature.  One of the most widely publicized is the Seed Cathedral, or the UK Pavilion at the World Expo, Shanghai 2010.  It is comprised of 66,000 seeds trapped in the tips of fiber optic rods that give the cube-like building a furry surreal look and through its simplicity and striking design, it leaves the visitor undoubtedly transformed.

Have a look at the Ted talk, then pop on over to the Heatherwick website to check out their other works.  My favorite is the bridge whose ends kiss themselves.

A view inside the Seed Cathedral suggests the human face amidst 66,000 seeds - UK Pavilion at the World Expo, Shanghai 2010.  Photo: Iwan Bann (available at

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Suzanne Lee: Grow your own clothes | Video on

Suzanne Lee: Grow your own clothes | Video on

This is an interesting presentation of a new concept in fashion design. Suzanne Lee, director of BioCouture harnesses the power of bacteria to grow cellulose fiber based cloth. I can't help but think of the victimless leather jacket from Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr at the Tissue Culture & Art Project. 

Indigo dyed jacket shows a brilliant blue

The bacteria eats sugar and spins threads of cellulose!

Bio Kimono

Suzanne Lee, Director of BioCouture

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Beauty is in the details~ 2011 NanoArt International Online Exhibition

2011 NanoArt International Online Exhibition is Open for Public Viewing

(This image was taken from the public gallery of Ursula Freer, used here for illustrative purposes.

The Show: 

149 artworks of NanoArt authored by 42 artists representing 12 countries are exhibited in the NanoArt 21 online gallery. All these artworks are participating in the 5th edition of the NanoArt International Online Competition. The winners will be announced after May 31st. Enjoy the show:

About NanoArt21:

"NanoArt21TM was founded by artist and scientist Cris Orfescu ( The purpose is to promote worldwide the NanoArt as a reflection of the technological movement. Orfescu considers NanoArt to be a more appealing and effective way to communicate with the general public and to inform people about the new technologies of the 21st Century. NanoArt is aimed to raise the public awareness of Nanotechnology and its impact  on our lives." (excerpt from

For more information about NanoArt, please visit

(This image was taken from the public gallery of Daniela Caceta, used here for illustrative purposes. )

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ryan Romie Littrell: DIYbio and the Reemergence of the Sci-Artist

The Science Technology and Society (STS) research cluster and the Communications and New Media Department at the National University of Singapore welcome visiting scholar Ryan Romie Littrell.  Romie will give a public talk about his research focus of DIYbio in the artistic and design context. 

Date/Time: Tuesday, April 19th, 2011 3:30 PM

Venue: National University of Singapore, Building AS4, Room 0116. Map:

Title: DIYbio and the Reemergence of the Sci-Artist

Note: After the talk there will be a discussion of his talk, followed by a reading group discussion for which Romie recommended a chapter from Marcus Wohlsen’s “Biopunk: DIYscientists hack the software of life”

Speaker's Bio:
Romie's research is focused on the exchange of tools and methods between artists and scientists. In the present he is a graduate student in the Biomedical Engineering Dept. at UCLA. He received his BA in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley. Since then he has engaged in a wide array of biological research including maize genetics, cornea tissue engineering, microfluidic bioreactors, and cell-chip interfaces. His current research focuses on creating non-institutional laboratories and abstracting biological techniques to facilitate those in unrelated fields to perform advanced biology. Romie is also very interested in synthetic biology, is the founder of SoCal DIYBio, and was a grad advisor to the 2007 MIT iGEM team. He is currently a fellow in UCLA's Art|Sci Center, which promotes collaboration between the arts and sciences and their integration in education.

This announcement was sent on behalf of Assistant Professor Denisa Kera, NUS.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Talk by Denisa Kera: DIYbio in Asia April 8th~!

DIYbio in Asia:
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Global Flows of Data, Kits and Protocols

Dr. Denisa Kera
Assistant Professor
Communications and New Media Programme, National University of Singapore

8th April 2011
12.30pm- 1.30pm
Symposium Room 2 & 3
Level 1, Block MD 11, Clinical Research Centre, 10 Medical Drive, S (117597)
*Attendees can bring their own sandwich lunch.

Direct to consumer (DTC) genomics, Bioart, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and Do-It-With-Others (DIWO) biotech subcultures like DIYbio and DIYgenomics, garage biotechnology and novel forms of co-working spaces and labs present an alternative approach to innovation and research outside of the academia and industry walls. Various forms of grassroot and open source models and activities applied to emergent biosciences present a trend that is challenging the meaning of science dissemination, communication and popularization but also policy. These “popular” forms of science research related to Hackerspaces and science community labs around the world connect directly politics with design, community building with prototype testing, and offer an experimental approach for discussing issues of ethics, policy and innovation.  Communities of people monitoring, sharing and making sense of various “scientific” data and practices in their everyday lives are exploring new and unexpected global networks around low-tech biotechnologies and biomedicine. The low-tech strategies are making possible a global “pop” biotech movement that is spreading from the USA to Indonesia and Philippines. It paradoxically refers back to EU based squat cultures and art and science centers as much as to the American spirit of entrepreneurship. This global biotech underground is converging in the informal networks between ASIA, USA and EU that enable very different flows of knowledge and expertise from the official biotech industry. What are the various forms of citizen science projects, consumer genomics services and various DIYbio initiatives? What challenges these consumer and citizen oriented activities pose to bioethics? How they operate on the global level and what type of exchanges are we starting to witness between continents and cultures? How to describe these new models of research that involve various local communities in the R&D process? What perspectives does this offer to the developing world where low-tech can have a “high-impact”?


Denisa Kera  is Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore where she teaches courses on interactive media design and new media theory.  Her current research brings together Science Technology Society (STS) studies and interactive media design. She focuses on DIYbio movements in USA and Asia, consumer genomics services on web 2.0 and various forms of emergent “pop” biotech a citizen science projects. She has extensive experience as a curator of exhibitions and projects related to art, technology and science: ENTER3, "Artists in Labs" and "TransGenesis: festival of biotechnology and art" in 2006 and 2007.