Field Trip: Genspace Community Biolab

If it weren’t for the unusual fruit punch – a rum drink made with strawberries that had their DNA extracted earlier in the evening – a recently arrived guest might be forgiven for thinking that this was any other party in a downtown Brooklyn work loft. Youngish people wore darkish clothes and mingled in an overly warm, dimly lit room. But this was not a party for a start-up tech company or a new architecture firm. It was for Genspace, “New York City’s Community Biolab.”

Genspace’s mission is one of science education, particularly biotechnology, for students and adults. Biotechnology is a field broadly described by Merriam Webster as “the manipulation … of living organisms or their components to produce useful usually commercial products (as pest resistant crops, new bacterial strains, or novel pharmaceuticals).” As the dictionary definition suggestions, the field touches humans in multiple ways throughout their everyday lives. The 21st century, according to Walter Isaacson in 1999, will be the biotech century.

Under ideal conditions, E. coli bacteria can double in quantity every 20 minutes. And while Genspace has not grown quite this quickly since its founding three years ago, the organization has significantly developed in size and scope.

Innovation Square Bacterial Painting
Innovation Square Bacterial Painting

While one may think of DIY culture as pickling vegetables and silk-screening t-shirts, the DIY movement has extended to science as well. In 2009, Genspace’s four founders self-inaugurated as the New York City chapter of the DIY Bio movement. They named themselves DIYbioNYC and began to host open-invitation biology experiments in one founder’s Park Slope apartment. The strawberry DNA extraction, the first experiment, evolved into simple transformations, such as making E. coli bacteria glow green. These events drew 10 to 25 people and often involved drinking beer and eating pizza.

Soon, it became clear that an apartment could not safely or realistically sustain experiments that needed more than an afternoon to unfold. The group found a space that would allow them to do longer-term projects. However, the stipulation that came from those already using the space – no work could be done with anything living – quickly forced the group to look for their own facility. In 2010, they moved into 33 Flatbush Avenue, the Metropolitan Exchange Building, which is home to creative start-ups and ecologically-aware organizations as well as Interboro Partners and Mitchell Joachim’s Terreform ONE.

Genspace’s facility, a Biosafety Level One lab (actually two labs, one large and one small), is made out of repurposed, found materials such as glass porch doors, mini-fridges picked up off Craigslist, and equipment donated by biotech firms that are going out of business. Classes for students as well as classes for adults, like the Biotechnology Crash Course and the Biohacker Boot Camp, are held in the lab.

In addition, similar to the 3rd Ward membership model, for a $100-a-month membership fee, Genspace offers access to the lab for personal biotech projects. One member, the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, is making portraits of people based on DNA remnants (such as stray hairs) she finds on the subway. Another member is working on a way to use bacteria to test arsenic levels in water. According to Daniel Grushkin, a Genspace co-founder, a possible outcome of this project would be simple, inexpensive water purity tests that could be used throughout the developing world.

Members of Genspace have engaged in collaborations with architects and designers, including teaching at ONELab, “a summer lab for students, architects, scientists, artists, and individuals of all backgrounds to explore design with various living matter including live tissues, bacteria, tree grafting, fungi growth control and parametric scripting.” For the 2011 iGEM (International Genetically-Engineered Machine) competition, a yearly student competition to make genetically modified organisms, Genspace worked with David Benjamin, an architecture professor at Columbia, and a team of students from Columbia, Cooper Union, and New York City high schools to attempt to get bacteria to produce quantum dots, a nanoparticle that has potential uses in medicine and engineering. Genspace has also worked with Mitch Joachim, who teaches architecture at NYU and whose biophilic approach to ecological design can be summarized by his TEDtalk slogan “Don’t build your home, grow it.” For part of their 2012 iGEM submission, Joachim, students and Genspace members “genetically engineered the naturally occurring bacterium Acetobacter xylinum” and with the bacteria, created a chair.

The incubator, an economic development strategy pursued throughout New York City in fields from technology to baking, works to lower the costs associated with starting a business in order to encourage new businesses to enter the market. In the biotech field, both Manhattan’s Alexandria Center for Life Science and BioBAT in Brooklyn — part of Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to attract and retain biotechnology in New York City — have spaces intended for companies just starting out in this field. Genspace’s non-profit mission may seem at first blush to be far from a for-profit business incubator. But by providing space, materials, and a community for individuals interested in pursuing biotech projects, Genspace serves as a certain kind of incubator: community labs like Genspace encourage and democratize science innovation. Moreover, a project developed in the lab may one day make it to a larger forum, perhaps after being taken up by an established biotech company.

Although the vast majority of biotech research and development is done away from public view by private companies, academic institutions and the government, some see the future of biotechnology as tightly linked to individual biotech thinkers. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2007, Freeman Dyson foresees the “domestication of biotechnology,” the use and acceptance of this science by the public. Freeman writes, “In the era of Open Source biology, the magic of genes will be available to anyone with the skill and imagination to use it. The way will be open for biotechnology to move into the mainstream of economic development, to help us solve some of our urgent social problems and ameliorate the human condition all over the earth.”

Despite the community biolabs’ potential for major contributions, these labs have been viewed with degrees of fear and suspicion from some government officials. The idea of the biotech hacker, fuelled in part by post-9/11 Anthrax scares, is not far from some minds. However, as a co-founder points out, a community lab full of people interested in each other’s projects is perhaps the worst place for a biohacker. Nonetheless, cognizant of the U.S. government’s concerns over community biolabs, Genspace is working with the F.B.I. to ease fears among policymakers.

Back at the party, Grushkin gave some guests an impromptu tour. Inside the small lab, he brought out plates of Physarum (slime mold) he had recently prepared for his biodesign class. In the enclosed petri dishes, the amoeba were making their way to the food, an oat flake.

“The way these creatures move towards the food, it’s like the map of the Tokyo rail system – they go the most direct route possible,” Grushkin explained.

One guest, an urban planner, looked at the line the amoebas were making as they trekked to their food and thought about the cost effectiveness of employing Physarum to plan large-scale infrastructure projects in the U.S. “Slime mold are the new engineers,” she mused.

Just then, word was received that a second strawberry DNA extraction was about to occur. The guests and the co-founder returned to the party in order to get a good view of the demonstration.

 All images courtesy of Genspace. 

Renata Silberblatt is an urban planner who currently works on transportation policy in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. She lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.