Distributed science

In the future, we will solve biological problems by running experiments in parallel.


Participants at #ScienceHack 2014, Synbiota’s Open Distributed Genetic Engineering event. Photo by Madison Matthews, courtesy of Synbiota.

In my post on biohacking and bioterrorism, I briefly mentioned the possibility of vaccines and other treatments developed outside of institutional research. That may be far-fetched, and I certainly hope we’re never in a situation where DIY treatments are the only ones available. But it is worth looking at how biologists outside of medical institutions are transforming research.

Perhaps the most ambitious project right now is Synbiota’s #ScienceHack. They are organizing a large number of volunteer groups to experiment with techniques to produce the compound Violacein. Violacein is potentially useful as an anti-cancer and anti-dysentery drug, but currently costs $356,000 per gram to produce. This price makes research (to say nothing of therapeutic use) impossible. However, it’s possible that bacteria can be genetically engineered to produce Violacein much more efficiently and cheaply. That’s what the #ScienceHack experiment is about: the groups will be trying to design DNA that can be inserted into E. coli bacteria to make it produce Violacein at a fraction of the cost.

There are many possible approaches, many ways to design DNA that might work. A single lab would have to try all of them before determining which are effective. However, with a widely distributed groups of experimenters, all starting from a single kit of DNA parts created in partnership with Genomikon, and all sharing data online, it’s conceivable that this problem can be solved in a matter of hours. Each team comes up with its own design, implements it, grows the bacteria, tests the result, and sends it back to Synbiota in a giant shared notebook.

#ScienceHack launched on March 28, and will continue at other sites, including Genspace, in the following weeks. Distributed science? Indeed. Just as Google searches are performed in parallel across thousands — if not millions — of computers, in the future we will solve biological problems by running experiments in parallel across hundreds or thousands of laboratories.

The Iliad project is an equally intriguing attempt at parallel biology. The idea is to enable volunteers to do experiments at home to identify potential antibiotics. As my previous article pointed out, antibiotic resistant bacteria is a threat much more real than human bioterror: nature engages in bioterrorism much more effectively than we do. And drug companies are doing little to address the problem, in part because antibiotics are less profitable than other drugs.

The idea of citizen scientists finding antibiotics in their backyards was pooh-poohed by some members of the science industry. However, although drug companies have millions of compounds in their libraries, it’s hard to believe that they’ve exhausted even the smallest suburban backyard — and an inexpensive kit like this could be an indispensible aid to identifying new compounds in tropical rain forests, which we’ve hardly begun to explore. Unfortunately, an Indiegogo crowdfunding failed to reach its goals, preventing the project from going into production. The Iliad project is now looking for more traditional sources of funding; we hope they succeed!

J147: Therapeutic for ALS is another crowdfunded project that is currently over halfway toward its funding goal. They plan to do a microscopic tissue evaluation to determine the effectiveness of J147, a drug that could potentially halt the progress of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). While the project itself isn’t distributed, the homepage on Indiegogo tells a familiar story: since ALS isn’t common (roughly 5600 new diagnoses per year), and since patients typically die within five years of diagnosis, there’s little financial incentive for drug companies to do research. So the project talks about “guerilla biotech”:

We are dedicated to doing the difficult science that for-profit pharmaceutical companies find too “risky.” We can do novel and creative scientific experiments necessary to bring basic research discoveries, bridging the “Valley of Death” between lab bench to patient bedside. And we make the results of our work available to the public, not hidden behind paywalls.

The J147 project, Synbiota’s #ScienceHack, and the Iliad project all represent a new model for biological research. Rather than concentrating research in a few academic and industrial laboratories, this work will be done in hackerspaces and biotech incubators. The leaders will be trained professionals, many of whom have become frustrated with institutional biology; some of the work will be done by amateurs, working alongside the professionals. But regardless of who does it, we’re talking about a new paradigm for scientific research, a paradigm that’s driven purely by the desire to work on stuff that matters.

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