GMO How-To Kit: Interactive Future of Biotech Education

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The DIY Bio Revolution

This summer, the website GMO Answers was launched by the Council for Biotechnology Information in the hopes of making “information about GMOs in food and agriculture easier to access and understand.” As seen in past and present discussions about GMOs—the Kaua’i County Bill #2491 debate comes to mind—misinformation and fear mongering hinders productive conversation. GMO Answers is a great educational resource and I am glad it was created. However, I believe people also need to develop a personal relationship with genetic engineering and interact with it if the “GMO fright” pandemic is to be fully addressed.

Imagine if biotechnology was a common, friendly, hands-on experience for anyone interested. Imagine if learning biotechnology skills and practicing them was just as common as learning survival skills for a girl scout troop. Imagine if grandmas could receive homemade GMOs from their grandchildren. Imagine if Grandma could pick up the hobby of DIY biology along with knitting.

This may sound silly and “too sci-fi.” But if people had “everyday” experiences with biotechnology, I believe there would be less fear and more curiosity about GMOs and other biotech products. I also believe that such commonplace, educational experiences could be possible in the near future.

The “garage biology” movement is trying to make this possible. Groups such as BioCurious, Genspace, and DIYbio strive to make biotechnology accessible by organizing workshops and classes as well as making lab space and equipment available for group members to pursue their own projects. People from all parts of the biology education spectrum participate in these community biology groups. Unfortunately, not all cities have community biology groups yet. However, soon, DIY biology experiences could be delivered right to people’s front door. Literally.

The group Glowing Plant is on the way to making this a reality. After a successful Kickstarter campaign this spring, Glowing Plant raised enough funds to begin creating a glow-in-the-dark plant that could replace a reading lamp. People who donated $40 or more to the Kickstarter campaign will receive seeds for the glowing plant when it is successfully developed. Through its Etsy store, Glowing Plant is also selling a Glowing Plant Maker Kit. The kit is completely separate from the donation awards on Glow Plant’s Kickstarter page, so anyone can purchase it. Nearly everything needed to transfer the glow gene into an Arabidopsis plant is included in the kit. The only items that need to be bought separately are bleach, ethanol, and dry ice, all of which can be bought from your local grocery store. You can place your order now, but kits won’t be available for shipping until May 2014.

When Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter campaign was nearing its deadline in early June, there was quite an Internet frenzy about sending genetically engineered seeds far and wide with no regulatory oversight. People were calling for Kickstarter to terminate the Glowing Plant project and others were incredulous that GMO regulations had such a gaping loophole. However, setting regulation issues aside, I’d like to say the following.

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Kits can help people make their own equipment, like this gel electrophoresis project.

This is an amazing concept. Buying a transformation kit online from Etsy! In the near future, I might be able to browse craft how-to kits and biotech how-to kits side by side in the DIY section of Etsy.

Allowing people to relate to biotechnology in a personal, informal, and fun way is a powerful idea and, I believe, a potential game-changer when it comes to public conversations about GMOs and other biotechnologies. Removing biotech from its perceived black box and putting it instead on people’s kitchen counters allows everyone to explore and learn. With the continued work of the garage biology groups mentioned above and the availability of biotech how-to kits, I believe future biotech discussions may take a turn for the best.

If you have any experiences with the community biology groups mentioned or other DIY biology opportunities, please share!

Follow Caroline Coatney:
Caroline is currently a graduate student in the Plant Biology department at the University of Georgia. She is working in the Dawe Lab and studies the genetics responsible for perenniality in species closely related to corn. Before starting graduate school, Caroline worked for a year as a science writer for the Illinois State Legislature.