The New Biohackers: How (and Where) They Work

Larry Melnick, left, and Andy Berks chat over lunch in the common kitchen area of Brooklyn-based community biolab Genspace. (Image via Ellen Jorgensen)

By Ellen Jorgensen

In a laboratory in New York City, molecular biologist Roy Buchanan is finishing up at the bench for the day. It is eight o’clock in the evening, and while late night work is a familiar scenario for most scientists, the presence of Buchanan’s two young sons playing a game in the common area outside the lab is not. “My wife let me work on this project only if I promised to continue sharing the child care responsibilities,” he explains. A computer programmer by day, Buchanan pursues a self-funded genome editing project in his spare time, enabled by the shared facilities and low price point of Genspace, a community biolab in Brooklyn.

Buchanan is not alone. The economic downturn has resulted in a surfeit of unemployed and underemployed scientific experts itching to get back into the lab and flex their underused intellectual muscles. Some were forced into jobs outside their main field by economic necessity, and others just made what they now consider to be a bad decision to work in a field unrelated to their original passion. As Genspace’s director, I am seeing more and more of these part-time entrepreneurs showing up at our doorstep. And unlike many of the original inhabitants of these spaces, who had little or no previous biology experience, these biohackers have the background to ensure that their projects are focused and their research goals realistic.

Aside from the obvious benefit of retaining intellectual property rights and the lure of cheap lab space, there are many other advantages to innovating within a community lab. It’s almost impossible not to be aware of public opinion if you are in such an informal, inclusive setting. Rubbing shoulders with a motley crew helps innovators keep sight of what the consumer market might be for their potential —> Read More