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Belgium is fertile ground for a new generation of DIY biologists

09:01 17/02/2020
Can we hack it? For these biologists, open-source biology is the new tech start-up scene

Four years ago, Elise Elsacker was frustrated. She was working as an intern at an architecture firm, and saw every day how much waste the sector produced. So she took an unorthodox step: she started experimenting with biology.

“She was looking for innovative materials that were circular and biodegradable,” says Jasper Bloemen, a bio-engineer who was working in the Belgian DIY biology scene at the time. “So she and Winnie Poncelet, another DIY biologist, started researching how to use mycelium – the below-ground vegetative network of mushroom threads – to upcycle organic waste into materials that are strong, but that will biodegrade when you throw them away.”

Four years later, these original experiments snowballed into a startup company called Glimps, which Bloemen co-founded. They still focus on making new materials that are ecological and biodegradable, but are also pushing into biotech and educating companies and citizens about its potential.

What they do goes by many names. It’s often called biohacking, though people in the space prefer terms like DIY biology or community biology. But whatever it’s called, they are essentially taking biology, and freeing it from the universities and large corporations that until now have monopolised the space.

They take the DIY hacker spirit of the IT world and put that philosophy into research about things like biodegradable materials or open-source medicine. At a time when investment and research into biotech is rapidly speeding up, teaching everyone about it, from citizens to companies, might just be what we need. “Bio is the new tech,” Bloemen says. “And everyone should be prepared for it.”

In Belgium, Ghent is a reference point for this DIY revolution, particularly through the efforts of ReaGent, an open laboratory in which Elsacker and a range of other enthusiasts found refuge. “The philosophy behind ReaGent is essentially to have a fablab or hackerspace, but for biology,”, says Niek D’Hondt, co-founder of the open lab. “We were the first fully operational one in Belgium. But globally we’re not terribly original. By now there are 120 similar labs all over the world.”

So where a regular hackerspace might offer workbenches and tools for electronics projects, ReaGent offers the tools and space to carry out your own biology experiments. Think petri dishes, fluids and lab equipment. One of their projects is called Open Insulin. “In the US, pharma companies charge very high prices for insulin,” says D’Hondt. “Which they do by every once in a while changing the formula for it slightly, so they can renew and maintain their intellectual property.”

In response, some American researchers decided to try and make an opensource version of insulin. If successful, startups could then take that version to market and dramatically lower the costs for patients. This is research the ReaGent community has since been involved with.

D’Hondt, a lab technician by education, co-founded ReaGent around 2015 with biochemist Poncelet. “We were looking for a place to do our own experiments, but we didn’t find anything,” D’Hondt recalls. “You can’t just walk into a university or biotech company and use their labs for testing. So we founded our own place.”

Today the projects that ReaGent supports range from science education classes for children to measuring the water quality of rivers. “What we do revolves around empowerment,” says D’Hondt. “We are there for people when they want to test or build something but don’t know how to do it. Maybe because they don’t have the tools, or maybe because they don’t have a scientific background. Those are the people we want to reach. We want to remove this veil of secrecy around biotech, and show people they are smart enough to understand how medicines are made, for example.”

Nevertheless, there’s still the naming controversy. Originally these DIY biologists called themselves biohackers, taking inspiration from the hacker ethos coming out of IT. A hacker here means someone who champions opensource, free information and DIY, not breaking into your computer.

Yet the word biohacking rapidly acquired a bad reputation. “Unfortunately, in recent years, some people have been trying self-experimentation,” says Jonathan Ferooz, a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Namur and founder of DIYbio Belgium.

In 2018, for example, US biohacker Josiah Zayner livestreamed himself drinking whisky while he injected his own arm with a formula intended to enhance his muscles. This sort of irresponsible experiment led to a cooling of interest in biohacking.

“Because of this, some biohackers like me want to dissociate ourselves from these guys and focus on the positive and safe role of biohacking,” says Ferooz. So today the community prefers words like DIYbio or community bio to denote their more responsible, ethical brand of DIY experimentation. All interviewees, for example, emphasised that they wouldn’t carry out experiments on themselves, and that their goals revolve around making a social impact.

Glimps is probably one of the most successful results from this Belgian DIY biology scene. “We’re a startup whose main focus is bio-design,” says Bloemen. “We’re an open innovation hub that wants to inspire people.” So what’s bio-design? “Essentially we use living organisms, from bacteria to plants, to manufacture a wide range of products and art pieces,” says Bloemen.

Examples include lampposts made from the waste of mushroom farms, leather grown from bacteria in liquid containers or even a compostable house of the future made out of grown materials, which is currently on show at the Design Museum of Ghent.

And that has a broader relevance for Bloemen, beyond just business. “We combine nature, creativity and science,” he says. “And that’s needed more than ever. We need these types of science and innovation to solve challenges like climate change, pollution and resourcedepletion.”

Which is why Glimps, and the organisations around ReaGent, focus so much on education and workshops. “Take for example lab-grown meat,” says D’Hondt of ReaGent. “This could be a very important answer to the pollution caused by the meat industry. Yet for the average citizen, something grown in a
lab is suspicious. They associate it with disease and big pharma, which could hinder the growth of lab-grown meat.”

Through educational activities, communities like ReaGent try to disseminate the importance of biology for our future, and try to lift the veil of secrecy it is covered in for so many people. “Biotech is becoming ever more important, both for regular citizens and for companies,” says Bloemen, who has recently been organising workshops for companies in Belgium and abroad. “Everyone should be ready for this new bio revolution, whether you’re a company or an individual.”

But for that to happen, ReaGent relies on its most important element: its community. “The social connections are the core of our story,” says D’Hondt. “What we do is built on these connections, on the people who come back to us every week, to work on projects and to do research together.”

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Tom Cassauwers