Nov 10, 2014
By Ron Shigeta
#Sciencehack : Transforming Science through Collaboration
Thanks to Connor Dickie of Synbiota for this guest post.  I can’t wait to get my hands on a kit!
It’s often said that collaboration is key. Why then, has collaboration in the life-sciences been so limited, when the products (medicine, materials, food, & fuel) are so important? The problem can’t be technical, It’s almost 2015! We’ve got more free and excellent collaboration tools at our fingertips than ever. Why then, is collaboration in life-science not the standard?
A lot of it has to do with an old mentality, one that was born when bringing a biotech product to market would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take a decade to complete. Just think, if you had a company that spent what amounts to a mountain of cash, and a significant part of a team of highly-paid researchers lives on a single product, you too would want keep your trade secrets pretty safe.
What happens then when bringing a biotech product to market costs less than $50k and takes only a year or two of development, or even less? This dream has not exactly happened yet in biotech, but it regularly happens in the IT sector, particularly with software, so let’s look there for insight as to how things might play out for biotech in the near future if collaboration and the Open Science model becomes as widely adopted as Open Source.
Remember (if you can) what computing was like in the 60’s and 70’s. Back then, a computer took up and entire room, and cost millions of dollars. Chances were that if you had access to a computer you had a PhD in computer science or math, and you were employed by the military, a research institute, or a large bank. Software was expensive, scarce, and cryptic.
Open Source Movement
By the mid 90’s all this had changed. Computers were ubiquitous, and the internet was connecting PCs and people from around the globe. Armed with the right tools and the idea of free and open software, cadres of computer scientists and developers were joined by students, hackers, designers and artists. This ragtag group started to coalesce into a community known as the Open Source Movement, which was built on the idea that by working together, a network of independent people could challenge the status quo. And boy did they ever!
Linux is often referenced as the poster-child of the Open Source movement, and for good reason. Since it’s early days, the dream of Linux was to replace Unix (the standard computer operating system used in mission-critical environments, easily costing over $10,000 per license) with a free and open alternative. Naysayers felt that this dream seemed insurmountable at best, and likely just a crazy pipe dream. But the power of a dedicated community, linked by the internet, wielding accessible tools, and each contributing a small part of the solution, changed the computing world forever.
What would it look like if a similar story played out in biotech? What would the benefits be to society be? Could we realize the dream of free, open, and trustworthy medicines? What if we could do the same for sustainable materials, food, and fuels? What would the world be like then?
While exciting to think about, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before these questions can be fully answered. There are some fundamental issues in biotech that make distributed collaboration difficult, and this is primarily the problem that we’ve addressed at Synbiota. We’ve taken lessons from the Open Source software movement and have applied them to biotech, and already we’re seeing exciting productivity gains for our users.
Open Science Movement
One of the biggest innovations we’ve brought to the Synbiota community is vastly increased project reproducibility when both our tools and integrated wetware are used together. By combining a common suite of free web-based, tools and an inexpensive, easy to use biological wetware standard, researchers and developers are able to hit the ground running, often producing results in weeks for just a few hundred dollars.
With this reduced cost and timeline to create working Synthetic Biology projects, we’re seeing an increasing amount of projects on Synbiota that are released to the public under a creative commons license – effectively Open Sourcing the science, which feeds back into the system making it easier to reproduce and extend existing projects, or even develop new projects based on previous work.
An example of Open Science in motion is the #ScienceHack initiative that we launched at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival. #ScienceHack demonstrates that using a common Synthetic Biology wetware kit, and Synbiota in a collaborative manner, it’s now possible to create real medicine at a cost a few orders of magnitude cheaper than Big Pharma.
Each #ScienceHack event uses the “Violacein Factory” wetware kit and a shared set of protocols that are freely available under a Creative Commons license. While the first #ScienceHack participants had only their hypothesis to inform their work, each subsequent #ScienceHack was able to leverage the Open Science results of previous #ScienceHacks – resulting in the first ever Synthetic Biology medicine created by a loosely affiliated group of scientists, artists, hackers, and students.
While the efforts of the Synbiota community have yet to change the status quo in biotech, #ScienceHack has successfully demonstrated that it is possible for motivated independent researchers to collaborate, and have a positive effect on the world using Synthetic Biology technology.
We hope this is just the start of something big. We continue to provide the tools, but it’s up to the community to turn this into a global movement that can offer an effective and open alternative to the status quo.