Bio Hacking in Manchester

MadLab spends time with the FBI

A version of this post was originally published in the Guardian on June 18th
At MadLab we’re used to unusual requests. We run a 3,000 square foot community space for science, technology and art in the centre of Manchester, and as a consequence organise and play host to a wide variety of events – from “hacking” toy robots to play football to making kimchi or dissecting octopuses (and eating them). But back in May we received one of our most unexpected queries yet:

I wanted to reach out to everyone to invite you to an upcoming workshop being put on by the FBI. Please join us for the workshop, June 12-14, 2012 in California.

Wow! So first of all, a bit of background: one of our projects is called
DIYBioMCR, a do-it-yourself biology (DIYBio) group originally set up in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University and supported by the Wellcome Trust. It’s been a great success, and we’ve introduced hundreds of people to biology over the past year through making fuel cells (powered by the bacteria in soil taken from NCP car parks), breeding snails and swabbing bus stops to count the number of bacterial colonies that grow there.

More recently, we’ve been building our own lab equipment and running experiments that would typically be done in an academic or commercial environment, like DNA barcoding sushi (to check what you’re eating is actually yellow-fin tuna).

So why the invite? What could the FBI possibly learn from a community space in Manchester? Here’s Special Agent Nathaniel Head to explain:

It’s the FBI’s goal to work with the amateur biology community to safeguard science and those working in the field.

In non-FBI speak, they know they missed a trick (or several) prior to 9/11 by not being outward-looking enough. They’re making an effort with the DIYbio community in order to understand – and keep up with – this fast-changing field. They’ve been talking to US-based biologists for the last few years, and this year, they’ve extended those talks to include groups from France 
(La Paillaisse), Denmark (BiologiGaragen), Singapore, Germany, the Czech Republic and Canada.
Hard at work at BioCurious. Whatever the FBI is learning, MadLab has the swift snap mastered. Photograph: Rachael Turner

Which brings us to sunny San Francisco. For the past three days we’ve sat through presentations and panel sessions involving FBI agents and 60 or so of the most prominent members of the growing DIYbio movement from across the US, Europe and Asia. It’s a diverse audience – scientists, artists, designers, journalists, activists and academics are all represented and the breadth of activity has been incredible. We’ve seen presentations on collecting biological samples from the Arctic Circle, converting street food carts in Singapore into mobile public laboratories, experimental aquaculture in Indonesia, playing Pacman with bacteria and printing DNA with a modified inkjet printer.

Amidst the frivolity, there are no illusions as to why we’re all here. When you see the words “amateur”, “open” and “biotechnology” in the same sentence, a not untypical initial reaction might be one of shock and concern, followed shortly by a host of imagined possible nightmare scenarios. For our part, MadLab’s been featured in a couple of BBC programmes that flit from smallpox to amateur biology (the so-called terror/ error debate) in a matter of seconds, inferring that a “bunch of kids in a garage” can accidentally bring down humanity with equipment bought on eBay.

On the final day we head into Silicon Valley for a hands-on session doing something that only a few years ago would have seemed inconceivable…

In the middle of an unassuming technology park in 
Sunnyvale, a couple of blocks away from NASA HQ, sits the US’s largest community biotechnology lab BioCurious. A world away from your typical commercial or academic lab, it’s closer in feel to a makerspace or hackerspace with benches made of scaffolding and a fridge full of beer – although the biological-equation graffiti in the toilets reminds you that this space is a bit different. Anyone can sign up to become a member and sharing knowledge of what you’re doing (and how) is positively encouraged. In fact, they’ve taken transparency to such an extent that all the storage boxes they use are see-through.

Rather than buying the latest and most expensive kit, BioCurious reuse and remake old equipment (typically donated or bought at auction) to fit their needs. As co-founder Raymond McCauley explains, “we needed a refrigerated centrifuge, so rather than buying one, we just put ours in the fridge. Obvious right?” Raymond and fellow BioCuriouser Derek Jacoby guided us through some taster lab activities. After an introduction to basic lab safety our group – a mix of FBI special agents and DIY Biologists got to work on the “hello world” of modern biology – genetically modifying e.coli to glow green. Did it work? We’ll find out when the photos come through (glowing e.coli does not go down well at UK Customs, unfortunately).

DIYBIOMCR on the Today programme

If you were up early, you might have caught DIYBIOMCR on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. BBC science editor David Shukman came round to MadLab's OpenPCR build workshop last month to report on the “early days in a DIY biological revolution".
DIYBIOMCR has been running for almost a year and we've run a diverse number of events and workshops including:
crowd sourcing a microbe map of Manchester, octopus dissection, a DIYBio Summit and building microbial fuel cells.
David Shukman was interested in our take on synthetic biology. Speaking to Martyn Amos from MMU and Asa Calow from MadLab, David concludes that:
The coming revolution will be biological and DIY will play a key role.
If you missed it, you can listen to it here.
Watch out for us tonight on the Six O'Clock and Ten O'Clock News on BBC1.
If you want to get involved in the DIYBio revolution don't miss out on our upcoming
PCR Challenge workshop, where we will be running comparison tests against various PCR machines, including the one you can hear us building in the BBC's report. We will also be unveiling the Manchester Microbe Map at this year’s FutureEverything conference on the 18th of May.

DIYBIO Manchester Celebrates BEACON Success

The DIYbio project celebrated success at the recent Manchester Beacon Recognition Awards, with their work being recognised with a cheque for £750 to further develop its community-University partnership.
Inaugurated in 
March 2011DIYBIOMCR is the largest DIYBIO chapter in the UK, and recently hosted the first ever DIYBIO Summit in the UK during the Manchester Science Festival. Supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust, the group is a collaborative effort with MadLab and MMU, hosting monthly user group meetings, special workshops (eg. Octopus dissection) and bringing experts from the new frontiers of biology to work and collaborate with the general public.
Manchester Beacon is a network to bring together people, events, projects, resources and ideas for public and community engagement. The Manchester Beacon combines the complementary strengths of the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford with the Museum of Science and Industry and Manchester : Knowledge Capital.
Manchester Beacon's Recognition Awards are for community-university partnerships making a difference to Greater Manchester. There were three tiers to the awards, and DIBYIOMCR was one of the projects awarded for partnership for more than 6 months, less than 2 years. 6389023349_0617e7f0e1 Pictured receiving the award on behalf of DIYBIO MCR are (left) Prof. Jo Verran (MMU), (centre) Hwa Young Jung (MadLab) with (right) Dame Nancy Rothwell (President of the University of Manchester).
More photos from the event can be viewed


Manchester to host first ever DIY Biology UK summit
An innovative community science project is to host the UK’s first summit on DIY Biology. Organized jointly by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab), and held in association with the Manchester Science Festival, the meeting will bring together “bio-hackers” from the UK, Europe and the USA to discuss the latest developments in this exciting new area. Places are limited, so please book a spot.
DIYbio Manchester is a one-year project supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust, to encourage the broader public to engage with and participate in scientific research. DIYbio is a rapidly growing global movement whose aim is to democratise, demystify and widen participation in biotechnology and biological science – bringing it out of the laboratory and onto the kitchen table. The Manchester group was set up at the start of 2011 to bring together professional scientists and curious amateurs.

Where the last part of the 20th century belonged to the computer, the 21st will be the century of biological revolution. Bill Gates has said that if he was nineteen now, he would be concentrating on biology rather than computing. The prospect of a grassroots biotechnology “open science” revolution is becoming a reality and the current crop of DIY biologists are its vanguard. This summit will present a unique opportunity to meet the people involved and find out more about what’s going on and where this movement is headed.

Held at MadLab, the two-day meeting will feature talks by international speakers, demonstrations and hands-on workshop sessions where participants can get involved in do-it-yourself bioscience. No experience is needed, as full training will be given.

Speakers and workshop leaders include:

Sung Won Lim and Oliver Medvedik of Genspace, the world’s first community biotech laboratory; Marc R. Dusseiller, Swiss-based lecturer on micro and nano-technology, artist and co-founder of Hackteria; Cathal Garvey, a biologist from Cork and inventor of the Dremelfuge; Dr. Brian Degger of transitlab, Newcastle; MadLab’s Asa Calow and Dr Martyn Amos (MMU) expert on natural and DNA computing.

Further Info
Event:     DIYbio Summit, Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th October 2011
Location: 36 - 40 Edge Street, Manchester M4 1HN
Tickets:   On sale from
Twitter :
Enquiries:   Project Leader Dr. Martyn Amos
Enquiries:   Press:

Manchester Science Festival:

DIYBIO at FutureEverything 2011

DIYBIOMCR will be at FutureEverything this year on the 13th of May, from  2:50 - 3:50pm. The conferences runs from the 12th - 13th at Four Piccadilly Place.
We will be exploring the growing DIYbio movement which is nurturing a whole new generation of citizen scientists.

The shape of the 21st century will be dominated by a fusion of hardware, software and wetware, and bio-hackers believe that this technology should be available to all.

In the spirit of the original Homebrew Computing Club, DIYbio participants are quietly building a parallel – yet complementary – strand of scientific andtechnological innovation. This session will feature contributions from several representatives of the new DIYbio Manchester group, including preliminary results from their launch project – the Manchester Microbe Map.
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