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!!!

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