CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — “There’s a lot of YouTube videos on this,” said Avery Normandin on a gray Sunday morning in late October. “But they’re pretty” — he used an unprintable word — “so I’ll try to do a better job.” He is a grad student in the MIT Media Lab’s Sculpting Evolution group, where some members have been trying to genetically engineer mice to keep them from harboring tick-borne illnesses, and have been discussing the release of these rodents with residents of Lyme-disease-plagued islands like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
Now, though, Normandin was surrounded by an entirely different kind of laypeople. These folks — or at least some of them — were hoping to try gene editing for themselves. There was an IT consultant from Hong Kong. There was a former teacher who’d joined a community lab in Southern California. There was a high schooler from Thailand. There was a sculptor from Baltimore, who’d recently started exploring biomaterials — “I’ve been sewing dried fish stomachs, experimenting with hydrogel expansion and growing mycelium in silicone molds,” she explained — and was thinking of incorporating living creatures into her art.
They’d all flocked to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a three-day summit of biohackers from around the world, an event with the aim of democratizing science, taking technology that’s often hidden in keycard-access labs at Harvard or Stanford and bringing it to the people. It’s the kind of conference where someone might stop you in the street and insist you take a foldable microscope and a handful of paper slides.
Sure, there were panels you might find at more academic get-togethers — about biosafety and scientific publishing and storytelling in biotech — and there were plenty of Ph.D.s in attendance. But there were also sessions with names like “Let’s swab,” “Hacking your way to affordable healthcare technology that reaches the last mile,” and “Sequencing genomes of the entire planet and open-sourcing them, not if but when.”
This breakout session had begun with the ringing of a cowbell, and a gaggle of participants walking across the street to a biology building for a workshop called “Hands-on CRISPR.” It was in the right place for tinkering — a windowless wet lab, with receptacles for biowaste — but it turned out that the only CRISPR the participants would be handling was of the marker-and-whiteboard variety.
They’d all heard and read plenty about this revolutionary genome-editing technology, and knew that it was, as cutting edge lab tools go, cheap and easy to work with. Now Normandin was going to give the beginners among them an insider’s look into how it actually works. He’d envisioned leading the group through an experiment on E. coli, but as he explained later, “I never want researchers — at any level — to be ‘driving blind.’ Context is crucial!”
Perched on a stool in white socks and sandals and a baseball cap, he began to draw part of a bacterial genome, with green boxes separated by lines, a bit like the buoys on a rope that might prevent campers from swimming outside the shallow end of a lake. “These repeat sequences are telling us something,” he said. “They’re regularly interspersed …” He stopped. “Interspaced? Spersed? Spaced?”
He went on, explaining that some of this sequence inside the bacteria was identical to the genetic material of an invader, like a bacteriophage — a virus that can attack bacteria. He drew a phage, which resembled a spider from outer space. He said some bacteria learned how to recognize and deal with such parasites by taking some of the viral genetic sequence into their own. Then, when they identified the same chain in a later attacker, they could produce an enzyme to chop it up.
“That’s a gross, globular protein,” he said, drawing a blob to represent the bacteria’s enzymatic weapon.
“I’m kind of lost,” said the former teacher.
“Come closer,” Normandin replied. “You’re going to draw it for us. Here’s a marker.”
Then, he explained that there was a tiny piece of the viral genome called a PAM that shows the bacteria’s anti-virus task force where to focus. “It’s a giant ‘Kick me’ sticker!” he said.
“What does PAM stand for?” someone asked.
“Protospacer adjacent motif,” said the sculptor, looking at her phone. “I Googled that.”
A discussion ensued about how a bacterium would have the chance to evolve defenses against a viral attacker. Wouldn’t the first attack be successful if you don’t already have defenses? Normandin explained that a phage with faulty machinery might open up that window of possibility.
“I’m still confused about what a phage is,” said the sculptor.
Normandin erased the whiteboard with his hands, marker staining his fingers blue and green. He started drawing some genomes from scratch. “Gosh, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, smiling.