One of the biggest obstacles to getting into biology, particularly genetics and synthetic biology, is the cost of equipment and expendables. A handful of large companies make the unique, precise equipment required for laboratories, and because supply and demand is small, the cost is very high.
Usually, this price barrier would make biology inaccessible to regular people, that was until personal manufacturing and open source hardware weighed in.
3D printing and open source microcontrollers in particular have made it easier for regular people on a budget to develop tools to do what only universities and corporate laboratories with massive budgets could do. Everything from micropipettes to PCR thermocyclers, centrifuges, and even automated lab robots have been reproduced by hackers and makers in an effort to open up biology for anyone and everyone interested, giving the do-it-yourself biology or DIYbio movement a foothold to take a fade and turn it into a paradigm shift.
One collection in particular, put together by Swiss DIYbio lab, GaudiLabs, shows a full range of DIY lab systems that would otherwise require a huge investment far beyond the reach of ordinary hackers and makers.
Whether for projects for education and fun, or attempts to work on novel projects, there is a wide and increasing range of open source tools for the job. PLOS (Public Library of Science) journal has published several pieces on some of these tools. In one piece, Open Labware: 3-D Printing Your Own Lab Equipment, it describes this new trend best, stating:
The introduction of affordable, consumer-oriented 3-D printers is a milestone in the current “maker movement,” which has been heralded as the next industrial revolution. Combined with free and open sharing of detailed design blueprints and accessible development tools, rapid prototypes of complex products can now be assembled in one’s own garage—a game-changer reminiscent of the early days of personal computing. At the same time, 3-D printing has also allowed the scientific and engineering community to build the “little things” that help a lab get up and running much faster and easier than ever before.
Not only does 3D printing and the open source paradigm help get labs up and running much faster and easier than before, one must consider the nature of scientific inquiry in the first place. Each problem is unique and the set of tools required to solve these problems have unique prerequisites. Customized tools and systems are traditionally expensive. One needs only look at NASA and the massive budget it requires to go where no one has gone before. One cannot exactly browse through a catalog and pick up a Martian rover chassis. Each part must be custom-designed, machined, tested, and assembled.
While the scale of DIYbio projects are much smaller than those undertaken by NASA, they face similar problems. For a laboratory to create their own tools that were not only affordable, but precise enough to actually work, a revolution in manufacturing was required, a revolution 3D printing and open source hardware/software is a part of.