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Hacker collective focuses on biotech (audio slideshow)

BioCurious, a hackerspace for biotech, lets budding scientists get their hands on once-inaccessible equipment.

SUNNYVALE, CALIF., - When it comes to splicing genes and replicating DNA, backrooms and basements are not the most ideal labs. The next wave of home hacking appears to be in biotech, and around the country, a handful of collectives have sprung up in the past few years to accommodate these biohackers.

As the members of a loose-knit biohacking group in the San Francisco Bay Area saw the passion for their homebrew hackers club growing rapidly, they decided it was time to expand. What they eventually built opened late last year as BioCurious, the Bay Area's first hackerspace for biotech.

"It's probably a lot like the pre-Hewlett-Packard days," says Ron Shigeta, a BioCurious member and biotech professional. "You can't get components, you don't know exactly what they're going to do, and you don't know why it's going to be useful. You just think it might be."

The lab is stocked with basic equipment that people might need to study molecular biology and microbiology. Except for four pieces of equipment in the building, everything has been donated, or recovered broken and fixed.

Open for just a few months, the lab, located in a business park in Sunnyvale, Calif., already has more than 30 dues-paying members, and more then 600 people involved in the greater community. Classes are taught on a range of topics, from beginner level to more advanced skills, and members share use of the advanced equipment.

The space provides access to otherwise expensive, inaccessible biotech tools. Right now, classes offered include bio-printing and bio-luminescence--essentially getting E. coli to glow in the dark through bioengineering.

But the pace of change at the lab is fast. Interest is growing more quickly than expected. And as the community evolves, so do the classes.

The collective is self evolving, and when more advanced members--often Ph.D. students or biotech professionals--want to teach a class on any particular topic or skill, they design it and away they go, with other members building a framework of progressively advanced classes. The diverse crowd of people interested in digging into biohacking is surprising.

There are biotech professionals working alongside artists, musicians, and even kids. It's an environment that helps welcome those who might not have a deep science background. The space is open to everyone, and it's likely when you need to ask a question, you'll be getting answers from professionals.