Support Us in Bringing You Real Talk on GMOs!

Support Us in Bringing You Real Talk on GMOs!

Khadijah, here, BetterBio’s founder with some exciting news – not only are we teaching teens how to write about the science that impacts their worlds, but I’ve launched a campaign to do so, myself! Please check out my campaign on Beacon Reader, and subscribe for only $5 a month to get the real scoop on food, food science and our environment. Thank you!!!

Real Talk on GMOs on Beacon Reader

Why Khadijah Founded BetterBio

The sciences purport to bring America the next industrial revolution. But few Americans are engaged in this revolution. Hey, we already have drugs for most of our diseases, we have plenty of food and we have fuel for at least another few years. Right?

Not exactly. Our current technologies are suffering from the law of diminishing returns. As we learn more about the world, we learn how little we understand. We can either learn how to adapt to all of our new knowledge and update our technologies, or, it seems, the world will force us to simplify. No more internet. No more chocolate. And definitely not enough food.

Some of us aren’t trying to hear that. We like life, like doing cool things, like being healthy. And we’re invested in sticking around for a few more lifetimes. As it turns out, a lot of people who feel this way are involved in science, actually. And a good percentage of those people go into medical, food or energy research with the goal to make a better world. So why aren’t we talking and strategizing together? As I told journalist Robert Hernandez, I started BetterBio with this vision in mind:

What if we could connect all of the people in the community who want science to help create a better world with all of the people in the lab who want the same? To break down the walls that divide us and learn from one another?

So far, we at BetterBio have connected over 30 teens with equipment, laboratories, mentors, internships and experience presenting to the public, helping bridge the gap between the lab bench and the classroom. Tomorrow, we hope to expand the conversation to include parents, patients and, well, you. Please join us as we move forward, and let us know how you want to bring science to life.

Be the Change

by Tyson Anderson

The Importance of Doing It Ourselves Here in the U.S. 

Like many other countries, the United States is rife with health disparities between the rich and the poor. Aside from the disparities based on pure economics, problems include poor access to vaccines, especially for hepatitis and childhood diseases like measles; inadequate research on diseases that primarily impact upon the poor, such as toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis and even common parasitic infections; and, of course, rising health care costs that weigh disproportionately on those without independent means. One issue that hits harder than most is simply not having access to healthy food. The US government has itself issued studies on “food deserts,” areas of the country with little access to proper food and nutrition. And even if food is available, that doesn’t imply that it can be considered proper nutrition.  The sad truth is that it is far cheaper to get fat in America on empty calories than it is to eat a balanced diet.

Solving Health Problems In Our Own Backyards

Instead of waiting for governmental change, such as Michelle Obama’s Step It Up Intiative, Americans are meeting their own food supply issues with local farming projects. Windowfarms, for example, is a community that uses simple botanical practices to turn seemingly infertile urban space into a healthy, sustainable and green food supply. Rather than relying on access to private or community rooftops to gather sunlight and water, their method allows for nutritious plants to be grown with no more than a window. It works by using a pump to recycle water and nutrients through a system of hanging, vertical planters (that can be made from something as simple as a recycled bottle). The end result is not only a locally grown and nutritious food supply, but a reduced carbon footprint and reliance on outside means of sustenance.
While Windowfarms is small-scale by design, other DIYbio initiatives are aimed at larger questions like the mechanisms of spreading disease. The BioWeatherMap project is a citizen-scientist-led project that aims to determine how the microbial life around us spreads and changes. Bioweathermap gives contributors without lab coats or Ph.D.s  and opportunity to engage in the project, allowing everyday people to participate in research with potentially far-reaching effects. Participants are encouraged to attend BioWeatherMap events in their city, where they are provided with tools and instructions for collecting specimens from approved surfaces, along with the date, time, geolocation information and any other relevant data. The event organizer then collects swabs and sends them to a sequencing facility, where it will be tested to give an accurate account of biodiversity across a variety of locations. Finally, the data is published in an open repository for the benefit of all.

The Limits of DIY As A Solution

Despite these examples of resourcefulness and drive, Joseph Jackson – the man behind the LavaAmp,BioCurious Labs and many other DIYBio and Open Science intiatives – seems frustrated at the stagnation of the DIYbio movement in America.In a recent interview, Jackson candidly reminded BetterBio that in order to work on DIYBio here in the United States, you face all sorts of very well-intentioned hurdles, such as Homeland Security visits, fingerprinting and background checks. Not to mention, issues with guardian accompaniment for children, which can prevent DIYBio educators from sharing the love of science with children still young enough to appreciate it. “We’re looking at massive disruptions in education. I don’t think we’re going to solve all of these problems at once.” Community colleges have integrated DIYBio research into curricula, but, as Jackson says, some are “sort of scammy, as well – for example, they’ll do clean tech certification for what turns out to be a tech bubble.”All of these barriers serve to erode not only the will but the pocketbooks of those that want to get involved. What has been left is a hardcore grouping of people, those with disposable income and some training, willing to be involved. “First, we’re going to have to draw from people with some disposable income, retirees, ‘bio-baby-boomers’ – this is an obvious point of engagement for them.”Jackson also reminds us that few of our country’s health problems will be solved through access to research tools, alone: “DIYBio is not going to solve the social justice problem here.” He argues that part of the problem is in the minds of funders and researchers: “It’s likely psychological – it’s more glamorous to help in locations where you’re more appreciated. People donate to Haiti, different disasters that strike, it is a cycle of awareness, has to do with how we engage with doing charity. It’s not efficient, maybe, it’s probably a tourism kind of thing, but it’s a longstanding problem.”
Unfortunately, Jackson and his team at the Open Science Initiative face limits on time (“we haven’t gotten to the stage of building partnerships with more established projects yet”) and staff (“we’re lacking a real community engagement point person or strategist right now in the organization”). Given the limitations on thought leaders’ capacity, it seems possible that without a large grassroots movement towards broader social justice, DIYbio will remain a marginalized, closeted movement showcasing the very best of both scientific and human intention. The final message that leaves, ironically enough, is that it is all still Do-It-Yourself.

Empowering Citizen Scientists to Do It Themselves

By Justin Bourke

DIY Bio Activists Seek to Improve Health in the Developing World

Chances are you’ve never heard of Chagas disease, unless of course you’re among the 40,000 people infected every year. It usually starts with a visit from The Kissing Bug, a blood-sucker named for it’s odd habit of “kissing” its hosts on the face during the night. The disease can be countered with antiparasitic treatments if caught early, but once it reaches the chronic phase the best you can do is delay or prevent its symptoms. These can include potentially fatal heart weakness or failure, malnourishment, or even dementia and motor impairment. There is no cure.

Diseases like Chagas are common and can have devastating effects in the developing world. There are a number of institutions that work to eliminate these and other health risks in the public interest – governments, inter-governmental agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), and non-governmental organizations and charities. Many of their efforts have been successful and well known (thank you, WHO, for eradicating Small Pox), but their scale is limited by the amount of funding and political will they can muster. In an attempt to reach some of the more neglected areas of the world, some scientific progressives have begun advocating a less orthodox approach – do it yourself.The DIY method, now a full-fledged underground movement, is based upon the belief that the average person can not only become equipped to solve their own challenges, but also contribute to the greater scientific community through open data sharing. This requires access to three things that most don’t have – proper equipment, training and opportunities for engagement. While there have been success stories in the States, providing these amenities in the developing world is a greater challenge. To find out whether or not DIYbio can help solve health issues abroad, several pioneers have begun the task of breaking down these barriers.

Equipment and Training

Any biologist will tell you that having the right equipment is essential to their work, but costs can be prohibitive in the developing world. According to Guido Núñez-Mujica, equipment that is already expensive in Western countries is even more so in developing communities due to high shipping and distribution costs. Núñez-Mujica intends to not only bring affordable equipment into remote areas, but make it easy to use as well. He is the co-developer of theLavaAmp, a handheld PCR device based on a concept originally proposed by Nitin Agrawal and colleagues at Texas A&M. PCR, an acronym for Polymerase Chain Reaction, is a method of copying DNA sequences. Until recently, the process required hefty machinery costing several thousands of dollars. Núñez-Mujica’s prototype, built by engineering firm Biodesic, will be no bigger than a cantaloupe, cost only $300-500 and be able to perform a DNA diagnostic in a matter of hours. That means if you get bitten by a Kissing Bug, you can find out if it was carrying Chagas on the spot. In fact, Núñez-Mujica was recently in Venezuela helping people do just that. He hopes that a teenager or hobbyist will be able to use the LavaAmp for everything from diagnosing Chagas to studying crop famine. “Rather than wait for solutions to come to them, [these communities] must be able to take steps themselves, even if those steps seem small.”
Nina Dudnik, meanwhile, seeks to not only bring affordable equipment to developing countries, but also provide much needed training. The difference is that her focus is on universities. Dudnik is the founder of the non-profit Seeding Labs, which collects unused equipment from labs in America and sends it to universities in Africa, Latin America and Asia at affordable prices. They also provide training both abroad and through intensive fellowship programs here in the States. According to Dudnik, their equipment has already been used by thousands of students and has directly lead to over 125 new publications, two new patents and a tool for diagnosing multi-drug resistant tuberculosis – a disease impacting one-third of the world population and an even greater percentage in poor communities.


Having affordable equipment and training is essential, but it doesn’t guarantee engagement. Few in their lifetimes are able to get hands-onexperience with the wonders of science, and even fewer get the chance to create real results. This is where companies likeKeegoTech come in. Their business is built on a microbial fuel cell (MFC) known as the MudWatt. In simple language, it’s a battery that runs on dirt. The technology is still too young to create enough power for practical use, so instead they sell the MudWatt to schools  as an educational tool to engage children in science. In doing so, they have discovered that scientific advancement can come from anyone. Says their co-founder, Keegan Cooke, “MFC technology has the potential to become a cheap and reliable way of charging small electronics, but we’re not quite there yet.  Scientists don’t yet know the best arrangements of electrode material or organic components to create enough power. So we invite students to experiment with our kit and post their findings on our community site. This has led to some very interesting ideas we never would have thought of.” Cooke’s favorite example is an eighth grader in California named Ricky, who alongside his father was able to double the output of the MudWatt from dirt in a local riverbed – a sample that KeegoTech is now working to analyze. But while they see this approach working in the developing world, their ability to successfully focus their efforts there is still uncertain.

The Future of DIY Bio

Organizations like LavaAmp, Seeding Labs and KeegoTech have begun to demonstrate what can be done when we make it possible for the average person to engage in science. And they are already getting investors. Seeding Labs’ fellowship program in the U.S. is underwritten by Novartis. LavaAmp was recently awarded a $40,000 grant from Start-Up Chile, a program run by the Chilean Ministry of Economy. But the movement is young and unproven, and the likelihood of continued funding remains unsure.
Still Joseph Jackson, one of the premier authorities on citizen science, is undeterred. A key partner in bringing Núñez-Mujica’s LavaAmp to life, he sees potential for the DIY movement to take off in the developing world. “These countries generally have fewer restrictions compared to the U.S., and enough demand for solutions. If we can get past the infrastructure barriers, some of them could become ideal breeding grounds for open innovation.”