Biohackerspace, DIYbio, and Libraries

“Demonstrating DNA extraction” on Flickr

What Is a Biohackerspace?

A biohackerspace is a community laboratory that is open to the public where people are encouraged to learn about and experiment with biotechnology. Like a makerspace, a biohackerspace provides people with tools that are usually not available at home. A makerspace offers making and machining tools such as a 3D printer, a CNC (computer numerically controlled) milling machine, a vinyl cutter, and a laser cutter. A biohackerspace, however, contains tools such as microscopes, Petri dishes, freezers, and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) machines, which are often found in a wet lab setting. Some of these tools are unfamiliar to many. For example, a PCR machine amplifies a segment of DNA and creates many copies of a particular DNA sequence. A CNC milling machine carves, cuts, and drills materials such as wood, hard plastic, and metal according to the design entered into a computer. Both a makerspace and a biohackerspace provide access to these tools to individuals, which are usually cost-prohibitive to own.

Genspace in Brooklyn ( is the first biohackerspace in the United States founded in 2010 by molecular biologist Ellen Jorgenson. Since then, more biohackerspaces have opened, such as BUGSS (Baltimore Underground Science Space, in Baltimore, MD, BioLogik Labs ( in Norfolk, VA, BioCurious in Sunnyvale, CA, Berkeley BioLabs ( in Berkeley, CA, Biotech and Beyond ( in San Diego, CA, and BioHive ( in Seattle, WA.

What Do people Do in a Biohackerpsace?

Just as people in a makerspace work with computer code, electronics, plastic, and other materials for DYI-manufacturing, people in a biohackerspace tinker with bacteria, cells, and DNA. A biohackersapce allows people to tinker with and make biological things outside of the institutional biology lab setting. They can try activities such as splicing DNA or reprogramming bacteria.1 The projects that people pursue in a biohackerspace vary ranging from making bacteria that glow in the dark to identifying the neighbor who fails to pick up after his or her dog. Surprisingly enough, these are not as difficult or complicate as we imagine.2 Injecting a luminescent gene into bacteria can yield the bacteria that glow in the dark. Comparing DNA collected from various samples of dog excrement and finding a match can lead to identifying the guilty neighbor’s dog.3 Other possible projects at a biohackerspace include finding out if an organic food item from a supermarket is indeed organic, creating bacteria that will decompose plastic, checking if a certain risky gene is present in your body. An investigational journalist may use her or his biohacking skills to verify certain evidence. An environmentalist can measure the pollution level of her neighborhood and find out if a particular pollutant exceeds the legal limit.

Why Is a Biohackerpsace Important?

A biohackerspace democratizes access to biotechnology equipment and space and enables users to share their findings. In this regard, a biohakerspace is comparable to the open-source movement in computer programming. Both allow people to solve the problems that matter to them. Instead of pursing a scientific breakthrough, biohackers look for solutions to the problems that are small but important. By contrast, large institutions, such as big pharmaceutical companies, may not necessarily pursue solutions to such problems if those solutions are not sufficiently profitable. For example, China experienced a major food safety incident in 2008 involving melamine-contaminated milk and infant formula. It costs thousands of dollars to test milk for the presence of melamine in a lab. After reading about the incident, Meredith Patterson, a notable biohacker who advocates citizen science, started working on an alternative test, which will cost only a dollar and can be done in a home kitchen.4 To solve the problem, she planned to splice a glow-in-the-dark jellyfish gene into the bacteria that turns milk into yogurt and then add a biochemical sensor that detects melamine, all in her dining room. If the milk turns green when combined with this mixture, that milk contains melamine.

The DIYbio movement refers to the new trend of individuals and communities studying molecular and synthetic biology and biotechnology without being formally affiliated with an academic or corporate institution.5 DIYbio enthusiasts pursue most of their projects as a hobby. Some of those projects, however, hold the potential to solve serious global problems. One example is the inexpensive melamine test in a milk that we have seen above. Biopunk, a book by Marcus Wohlsen, also describes another DIYbio approach to develop an affordable handheld thermal cycler that rapidly replicates DNA as an inexpensive diagnostics for the developing world.6 Used in conjunction with a DNA-reading chip and a few vials containing primers for a variety of disease, this device called ‘LavaAmp’ can quickly identify diseases that break out in remote rural areas.

The DIYbio movement and a biohackerspace pioneer a new realm of science literacy, i.e. doing science. According to Meredith Patterson, scientific literacy is not understanding science but doing science. In her 2010 talk at the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics’ symposium, “Outlaw Biology? Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio,” Patterson argued, “scientific literacy empowers everyone who possesses it to be active contributors to their own health care; the quality of their food, water, and air; their very interactions with their own bodies and the complex world around them.”7

How Can Libraries Be Involved?

While not all librarians agree that a makerspace is an endeavor suitable for a library, more libraries have been creating a makerspace and offering makerspace-related programs for their patrons in recent years. Maker programs support hands-on learning in the STEAM education and foster creative and innovative thinking through tinkering and prototyping activities. They also introduce new skills to students and the public for whom the opportunities to learn about those things are still rare. Those new skills – 3D modeling, 3D printing, and computer programming – enrich students’ learning experience, provide new teaching tools for instructors, and help adults to find employment or start their own businesses. Those skills can also be used to solve everyday problem such as an creating inexpensive prosthetic limb or custom parts that are need to repair household items.

However, creating a makerspace or running a maker program in a library setting is not an easy task. Libraries often lack sufficient funding to purchase various equipment for a makerspace as well as the staff who are capable of developing appropriate maker programs. This means that in order to create and operate a successful makerspace, a library must make a significant upfront investment in equipment and staff education and training. For this reason, the importance of the accurate needs-assessment and the development of programs appropriate and useful to library patrons cannot be over-empahsized.

A biohackerspace requires a wet laboratory setting, where chemicals, drugs, and a variety of biological matter are tested and analyzed in liquid solutions or volatile phases. Such a laboratory requires access to water, proper plumbing and ventilation, waste disposal, and biosafety protocols. Considering these issues, it will probably take a while for any library to set up a biohackerspace.

This should not dissuade libraries from being involved with biohackerspace-related activities, however. Instead of setting up a biohackerspace, libraries can invite speakers to talk about DIYbio and biohacking to raise awareness about this new area of making to library patrons. Libraries can also form a partnership with a local biohackerspace in a variety of ways. Libraries can co-host or cross-promote relevant programs at biohackerspaces and libraries to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas. A libraries’ reading collection focused on biohacking could be greatly useful. Libraries can contribute their expertise in grant writing or donate old computing equipment to biohackerspaces. Libraries can offer their expertise in digital publishing and archiving to help biohackerspaces publish and archive their project outcome and research findings.

Is a Biohackerpsace Safe?

The DIYbio movement recognized the potential risk in biohacking early on and created codes of conduct in 2011. The Ask a Biosafety Expert (ABE) service at provides free biosafety advice from a panel of volunteer experts, along with many biosafety resources. Some biohackerspaces have an advisory board of professional scientists who review the projects that will take place at their spaces. Most biohackerspaces meet the Biosafety Level 1 criteria set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Democratization of Biotechnology

While the DIYbio movement and biohackerspaces are still in the early stage of development, they hold great potential to drive future innovation in biotechnology and life sciences. The DIYbio movement and biohackerspaces try to transform ordinary people into citizen scientists, empower them to come up with solutions to everyday problems, and encourage them to share those solutions with one another. Not long ago, we had mainframe computers that were only accessible to a small number of professional computer scientists locked up at academic or corporate labs. Now personal computers are ubiquitous, and many professional and amateur programmers know how to write code to make a personal computer do the things they would like it to do. Until recently, manufacturing was only possible on a large scale through factories. Many makerspaces that started in recent years, however, have made it possible for the public to create a model on a computer and 3D print a physical object based on that model at a much lower cost and on a much smaller scale. It remains to be seen if the DIYbio movement and biohackerspaces will bring similar change to biotechnology.


  1. Boustead, Greg. “The Biohacking Hobbyist.” Seed, December 11, 2008.
  2. Bloom, James. “The Geneticist in the Garage.” The Guardian, March 18, 2009.
  3. Landrain, Thomas, Morgan Meyer, Ariel Martin Perez, and Remi Sussan. “Do-It-Yourself Biology: Challenges and Promises for an Open Science and Technology Movement.” Systems and Synthetic Biology 7, no. 3 (September 2013): 115–26. doi:10.1007/s11693-013-9116-4.
  4. Wohlsen, Marcus. Biopunk: Solving Biotech’s Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages. Penguin, 2011., p.38-39.
  5. Jorgensen, Ellen D., and Daniel Grushkin. “Engage With, Don’t Fear, Community Labs.” Nature Medicine 17, no. 4 (2011): 411–411. doi:10.1038/nm0411-411.
  6. Wohlsen, Marcus. Biopunk: Solving Biotech’s Biggest Problems in Kitchens and Garages. Penguin, 2011. p. 56.
  7. A Biopunk Manifesto by Meredith Patterson, 2010.

3D Printers in the Library: Toward a Fablab in the Academic Library

Colegrove and a student assembling an articulated model of a V8 engine
photo by Nick Crowl

Considering adding a 3D printer to the array of technology your library offers to meet your members’ needs?

The DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently added two 3D printers, along with a 3D scanner and supporting software, to its collection. In the spirit of sharing the tremendous excitement involved in providing a 3D printer to our community, we hope our successful experience may be of use to others as you make the case for your own library. We’ll cover the opportunities libraries can embrace with the potential 3D printing brings, what exactly 3D printing is, how 3D printing, making, and fabrication enhances and perhaps changes learning, and to illustrate we’ll talk about what we’re doing here in DeLaMare.

What’s a 3D Printer?

In a manner similar to printing images on paper, a “3D printer” is a type of additive manufacturing: a three-dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material that adhere to one another, creating a three-dimensional output.

What the material is composed of varies from one manufacturer to the next including:

  • fine cornstarch held together by “watered-down superglue”
  • ABS plastic (think Legos!) with each layer literally melted onto the other
  • high-end photopolymer printers where each layer is “printed” by flashing a 2-D image of the layer onto a thin film of a photoreactive layer deposited on the growing surface of the object, the process is similar: the three-dimensional object is constructed by printing and adhering one layer at a time.

Although the technology has been around for well over a decade, the cost for reliable printers has dropped to the point where it is now becoming widely accessible to hobbyists and the education market. Fair warning: don’t be surprised (like we were!) to find that your local high schools may already be years ahead of you in this arena. You can learn a great deal by talking to the high school teachers that may already be on their second or third iteration of the equipment. This makes sense: with the ability to rapidly produce detailed precision parts, such a device is by its very nature a rapid prototyping tool; it has a rightful place next to those CNC routers and milling machines in the shop.

But… the academic library? We would argue that the DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library and academic libraries in general are about knowledge creation, and “rapid prototyping represents the kernel activity of knowledge creation through action.” Spraggon & Bodolica, 2008.

Think of it this way: a laser printer enables students to create a tangible product of their creative writing, enabling further refinement and creation as it is marked-up and shared with others. A 3D printer can play a similar but more broadly-based role in the lives of research and learning – producing tangible models of theoretical constructs, acting as the springboard of new ideas. The ability to go from a two-dimensional model on a computer screen to a real-world object that can be handled, is potentially transformative; immediately accessible, it will not only promote but accelerate knowledge creation and innovation.

Engine assembly
Photo by Nick Crowl


But… a 3D printer in the library?

Not everyone can easily understand the connection between libraries and 3D printing. Sometimes stakeholders need to have the “dots connected” to better understand what it is, the value it provides in academia, and why a library is a prime location for this technology.

First consider technology that has become commonplace in today’s library:

  • copy machines, recently expanded to include scan to email functionality
  • desktop computer workstations and software
  • laptops and tablets
  • supporting equipment such as laser printers and scanners
  • audio and video production and editing equipment and staff
  • large-format (poster) printers and scanner

students look on at a piece of math art
photo by Nick Crowl

There is serious potential here

UNR Libraries and many academic libraries across the country already strategically deploy technology to enable knowledge creation across departmental boundaries. We are actively building an environment that nurtures creativity while stimulating and supporting learning and innovation across the university landscape.

The library is in a unique position to be able to leverage the wealth of learning and opportunities for knowledge creation that access to such technology can provide in a way that most individual departments are not. Because the library exists for everyone in the academic community, we are well equipped to provide open support for all. By its very nature the library is an active inter-disciplinary hub, where communities of practice cross paths regularly; rather than relegated to isolated departmental “silos” on campus, library technology explicitly enables learning and knowledge creation across disciplines. Science, Technology, Engineering & Math projects can be augmented by insights from the Arts and Humanities, and vice-versa. Regardless of academic discipline, “imagination begets fabrication, fabrication begets imagination.” (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012) 

Colegrove and student discussing the build process of the newest model.
photo by Nick Crowl

How is Rapid Prototyping a match for libraries?

Rapid Prototyping technology enables the active construction of new knowledge in a way that may be a good match for the library; beyond simply an opportunity to continue to be seen as leading the way technologically, the addition of the resource might enable your students and faculty to leverage the multidisciplinary skills and competencies needed to innovate and compete in today’s rapidly changing environment. In our case, liaison/outreach opportunities abound; currently identified needs that would be supported include:

• Chemistry Department – production of 3D chemical models and lattice structures in support of ongoing research being performed by graduate and undergraduate students working closely with teaching and research faculty. To date, the department has been required to outsource such production needs at a significant cost – both for the cost of the printing, and a lag time on the order of weeks to months for turnaround.

• Mechanical Engineering – development of custom piecework as-needed to support various projects throughout the undergraduate curriculum: from gears and structural work associated with robots and hovercraft to bridges and other structures; the students are already making heavy use of the equipment and software to meet unforeseen needs.

• Computer Sciences & Engineering – in addition to significant prototyping needs identified with several department flagship Senior Projects courses, more routine work will include the production of custom case enclosures to house prototype systems.

• Mining Engineering – production of 3D models of ore bodies and other mine structures immediately enabling learning on a level that is difficult to approach from a strictly two-dimensional print standpoint.

• Geography – structural modeling of geographic terrains, including 3D models based on traditional maps combined with other data to create tangible models of concepts being considered both in the classroom and as faculty research.

Planetary gear
Photo by Nick Crowl

Potential support could include:

• BioSciences – examples could include production of body parts models from CT or other scans; producing tangible 3D replicas of actual case studies. [ Editorial note: a research team from the Psychology department on campus has already announced their intention to print 3D models of each team member’s brain from MRI scans.]

• Business/Engineering/Physical Sciences – production of custom parts needed to prototype development in support of patent applications without overly costly outsourcing of work.

• Seismology – active production of 3D models of fault boundaries in an area of study as based on field sampling and collected data.

• Arts – need more be said? Imagine the creativity documented in Lawrence Lessig’s “Remix” extended to the world of 3D objects…

In short, rapid prototyping is a new multidisciplinary literacy that is poised to boost learning and knowledge creation across the Sciences, Engineering, and Arts across the academy. The need for rapid prototyping support is real, and the library is an appropriate place to maximize both the investment and return on the equipment.

So what kind of 3D printer to get?

As of this writing, RP publications hosts a pretty thorough comparison chart of “Comparison Chart of All 3D Printer Choices for Approximately $20,000 or less” at Its authors make the important points up-front:

• there’s no such thing as the “best” 3D printer, and

• the most important thing is to ask yourself what you and your community will be doing with the machine; balance current needs and future potential.

3D printing software
photo by Nick Crowl

What will we be doing with a 3D printer?

In identifying needs strongly in line with robust, droppable output; we needed to be able to print 3D models of gears, robot parts, and models that could be handled with a minimum of breakage. Stakeholders across the disciplines were quite clear that they would rather hand-paint a part made of “real” (ABS) plastic if need be than deal with pretty but fragile output.

We chose 2 printers for our maiden voyage along with supporting hardware and software:

  • Production 3D printer: Envisioned as the production engine for reliable output of precision parts, the Stratasys uPrint+/SE appeared to be the optimum choice given the demands of a production environment. The combination of reliable precision output, along with the relatively low cost of materials, promises to be a good entry point, at roughly $4.50/cubic inch of printed volume. Although the Stratasys uPrint/SE is somewhat less expensive, the “+” option adds the capability of printing in multiple colors – a feature that is likely to be key in the adoption and use of the equipment.
  • Hobbyist 3D printer: The 3DTouch printer was selected to serve both as an active display and an entry point for users experimenting with 3D print output; although the printer lacks the precision of the recommended production machine, the cost of materials with the 3DTouch are dramatically lower than for the production machine at approximately $0.60/cubic inch. The idea is that the 3DTouch can serve as a testing ground for first-round prototypes that would otherwise be printed at a significantly higher cost on the production machine.
  • Supporting hardware and software: Purchases include a single NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner, along with a single license of the supporting software RapidWorks. Capable of scanning extended real-world objects at up to 160,000 points per inch, producing a highly-detailed digital representation that can be immediately opened and manipulated in popular modeling software such as SolidWorks or AutoCAD. The educational lab license (30 floating licenses) of the Rhino 3D Modeling Tools for Learning was purchased to meet the needs of customers less comfortable with the SolidWorks software available through a partnership with Engineering on campus.

Photo by Nick Crowl

Connecting the Dots

It should be mentioned that the equipment identified for purchase already has a successful track record – it continues to be the choice for installation in high schools across the country for the same reasons detailed here.

The introduction of the new service already speaks loudly to the students and faculty as to UNR Library’s commitment to the continuing support of combining new with traditional technologies in support of the depth of learning that could not otherwise be obtained. In addition to directly supporting learning and innovation across disciplines at the University, the addition of rapid prototyping services may provide opportunities to introduce those that may not currently think of themselves as “library users” to the wealth of supporting resources that the library already provides. Production use of the 3D printers will build on the already well-established model of large-format printing support, developed over many years; the adoption of the new technology will not require substantial modification to existing procedures.

The great news is we are seeing both printers get use from students and faculty from a variety of departments, even through the summer. Many students have been early adopters, often spreading the news by word of mouth and bringing their work to their peers and faculty. Interestingly, the students are helping each other with the 3D scanning, manipulation and building using 3D software, as well as sharing files. The printer is available to all within the UNR community and we are also looking forward to working with a number of faculty as they add 3D printing as part of their courses and curriculum starting this fall.

Edited to add the official press release from University of Nevada, Reno:



Doorley, S., & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration. (1 ed., p. 79). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Spraggon, M. and Bodolica, V. (2008). Knowledge creation processes in small innovative hi-tech firms, Management Research News, 31(11), p. 879-894.


About Our Guest Author: Tod Colegrove holds the degree of Master of Science in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Competitive Intelligence and Knowledge Management from Drexel University which complements additional advanced degrees held in Physics, including the Ph.D.; over 14 years experience as senior management in high-technology private industry. Actively involved in the academy across multiple scientific and engineering disciplines, and keenly aware of the issues and trends in scholarly communication in the sciences; active member of the Association of College and Research Libraries, Science and Technology Section (ACRL/STS), as well as the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) division of the ALA. At the University of Nevada, Reno, where I served multiple years as manager of the Information Commons @One at the opening of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, and currently serve as the Head of the DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library.