Biological research and experimentation is no longer the sole realm of Ph.D-having, grant-backed, hypothesis-wielding scientists. As science moves into more and more complex territory, it is also — somewhat paradoxically — becoming more and more accessible to those who lack the bonafide to wear a white coat. In Australia, Biofoundry is at the heart of the movement to democratize experimentation. Biohacker Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow (his real name; an homage to the 2001 cult classic Super Troopers) founded the lab, the first of its kind on the continent, last November. And he says he’s thinking about building a chain
Inverse caught up with Biofoundry’s Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow (his real name; an homage to the 2001 cult classic Super Troopers) and picked his brain about what the lab is up to and what it hopes to achieve.
How did you get interested in biohacking and creating a place like Biofoundry?
I was halfway through my molecular biology degree. My job prospects weren’t very good. In Australia, we pretty much have no innovation and technology work. Basically, molecular biology graduates are fucked in this country. In New South Wales, which has about 6 million people, we only have about 12 jobs for biotech.
So I started to get concerned, because I wasn’t a grade-A student or anything. I looked around, and I found BioCurious [in California] and Genspace [in New York City]. But in Australia, nothing like this was happening. So I figured it was on the burden of me to get things happening.
I had a meeting with a group of people about 4.5 years ago. We had a huge group that shrunk down to about 12, and we continued to meet for four years. That culminated in a few of us just saying, “Fuck, let’s set up a lab. It’s been too long, let’s make this happen.”
Can you tell me about how you’ve seen biohacking progress? It seems to have started as like a niche hobby of some people, to something warranting the space and resources of a real, working laboratory, where amateurs and professionals alike have access.
One of the the biggest inspirations for the biohacker movement were in BioCurious jumping on Kickstarter. The most successful might have been the “Glow in the Dark” Kickstarter campaign. They raised a half a million dollars in funding, which is huge — but you academics coming onboard, allowed to approach science in a different way. And meanwhile the crowd is saying “here are the scientific projects that excite us the most, and we’re going to fund them directly,” circumventing the private sector and government. So that was big.
Also, with more media attention, the biohacking community is expanding, from a small group of IT people or biologists who wanted to do their own thing, to all of a sudden artists and others with no scientific background.
What happens at Biofoundry on a day-to-day basis? What are the kinds of projects people are pursuing that are currently underway or were recently completed?
So at the moment, it’s just a core group of people who are actually allowed to do projects at Biofoundry. I’m meeting with the government this coming Monday to discuss getting approval to open it up. So right now, we’re unofficially open, but only to people who really know how to use the lab.
But we’re currently doing a lot of public outreach projects, outside the lab. We did something recently where we showed people the germs on their hands. We are getting ready to do an aquaponics workshop and mushroom-growing workshop. We’ve gotten interest from bio-artists who want to work with us, like J.J. Hastings. We’ve got an industrial scientist doing a hacked dialysis device — old technology being reimagined using solvent technology, using 3D printers to take this older dialysis machine and update it for the 21st century. We’re participating in a hackerthon in two weekends, where I’ll be making an at-home STI testing device. These devices typically run between $26,000 to $100,000, but they’re really hackable, so people have been able to build them for as low as $60. So we’re selling one which is about $300.
What would you say distinguishes biohacking and DIY biology from conventional research work? What are the advantages and limitations?
I could talk all day about that. For me personally, I don’t fit well into an academic lab. I don’t like someone looking over my shoulder telling me what protocols I should use. I enjoy tinkering. I don’t necessarily use hypothesis-driven experiments. I like spontaneous creation and spontaneous discovery.
So I enjoy the act of science. A parallel might be religion, where you’re really focused and dedicated to this one thing, and through that understanding you gain a real sense of satisfaction and learn about yourself as you go through that.
Instead of learning just one specific discipline, I’ve also learned how to do carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, and a whole array of skills. So I have a multi-faceted understanding of the world of science. [Biohacking] is about taking away the restrictions and giving the freedom to explore and not worry about external pressures to meet deadlines or specific goals.
The limitations, of course, are the flipside of all those coins. There is no funding through conventional means. By not having direction, you face criticism from the press that you’re misguided, or you’re not doing anything that’s really worth anything.
Some people will tell you it’s really great what you’re doing. Others will tell you you’re not really doing as much as this other person at a university. Half the academics tell you what you’re doing is important and gives a great service to graduates who can’t find jobs. And then the other half asks you why you aren’t being a graduate and getting a job, because you’re just kind of fucking around. I just don’t share [the latter] belief.
What’s in store for the longterm future of Biofoundry?
We’re the first biohack space in Australia. The core mission of Biofoundy is the democratization of science. It’s the same with DIY bio in the “first-world” sense — participating in the international DIY bio movement. But there’s a lot of work to be done in that. I know more people in Silicon Valley than I do in Indonesia, which is ridiculous since Indonesia is closer to us.
Having biohack labs in every city in Australia would be awesome. A lot of Australia is actually a rural population with no access to dedicated science teachers. And the whole country itself is a very genetically diverse environment. By getting citizen and civic science into rural communities, we can hopefully inspire younger generations to enter science and do things like molecular biology locally instead of having to move into the city. It’s important to facilitate that spark to light the fire that will help introduce others to all this work in ways they had no access to before.