Saturday, November 24, 2012

Shift in focus to genetic engineering and synthetic biology

I've been working as a genetic engineer slash yeast geneticist at a small start-up biotech in the Bay Area for over a year, and because of the progress we've made in that short time, I've become more interested in the overall fields of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. I also read the book Biopunk, which I didn't like much but got me thinking about biological hackers and DIY bio. Because that's what I'm thinking about more and more these days, I'm shifting the focus of this blog from general biology and biology-tinged science to these more specific topics.

As a preview to this new focus, I'm linking to my company's major paper, published in Science in January 2012. Our work has grown and expanded since this paper was written, but the paper provides the framework and motivation for our current efforts in the biofuels industry.

An engineered microbial platform for direct biofuel production from brown macroalgae.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Crowdfunding science

Crowdfunding scientific research. This is a crazy idea to people who know how research funding normally works. Large grants are given to researchers who are associated with established universities, research institutions or government departments. Researchers need to prove to funding agencies that their grant proposals are worthy. Popular projects, established projects and projects that align with funding agencies' goals and agendas are more likely to be funded than those that carry higher risks of failure or are more experimental (incredibly). Those scientists who don't want to participate in this funding process need to fund themselves through personal money or a business; the current explosion of scientific start-ups speaks to the popularity of this path.

In addition to putting increasing pressure on traditional scientific research (see this recent NYT article for a related issue), the current system places the power of funding in the hands of a few. Now, for some projects, the power of funding can be placed in the hands of the many. Some new major scientific crowdfunding websites are up and running, including the ones featured here, and They are slick and colorful and mirror the structure of Kickstarter's crowdfunding site. Researchers prepare proposals and provide the dollar amount required to carry out their projects. Those scientists who meet their funding goals by the deadline have their research projects funded.

The parallels to Kickstarter are obvious, making these sites at first seem unoriginal, but the parallels help to make crowdfunded science accessible because people who are familiar with Kickstarter know exactly how it works. Secure payment systems, regular project updates. The companies are for-profit institutions, and they take a transaction fee from each funded project. One significant difference between the two sites is that PetriDish, like Kickstarter, has tangible rewards for different levels of backing (including videos, photographs and T-shirts), while Microryza specifically does not offer tangible rewards. Maybe because of the tangible reward requirement at PetriDish, this site is attracting more visually impactful projects (animals, ecology, geology etc.), while Microryza has a wider range of scientific projects, including computational projects where there's not much to see or print on a poster.

The research projects that are seeking crowdfunding are relatively small in scope, with researchers requesting in the range of $1,000-14,000. This is also a departure from the traditional system of research funding in that small projects are often not considered by major funding agencies unless they are bundled as part of a much larger grant proposal.

I have no personal affiliation with either site, but I am interested in seeing how both of them move forward. I've donated to several Kickstarter campaigns in the past year, and I'll be keeping a close eye on these scientific projects to find some that I'd like to support.

A brief search brought up other science crowdfunding sites to check out:, (cancer-specific projects), and scifundchallenge. It will be interesting to see if one or two crowdfunding sites pulls ahead and becomes dominant in this niche or if the sites will become specialized to avoid competing with each other for projects and donations.