Jason Bobe talks Personal Genomes, DIYBio, Bioweathermaps

Last night, PLoS hosted our 2nd #SciBarSpace event, bringing together ~60 members of the Bay Area science and tech community.

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  1. This time around, Jason Bobe, the brilliant mind behind such amateur scientist initiatives as DIYBio and the microbe-tracking program BioWeathermap, who is also the Executive Director of PersonalGenomes.org, was the featured speaker. 



  2. Thanks to some help on Twitter from our friends, the event was highlight publicized and attended. Aside from the 60 people that showed up to hear the talk in person, we live tweeted the event so that the virtual community could also participate.

  3. The Personal Genome Project (PGP) was started in 2006 by Harvard molecular geneticist, George Church. The idea: to sequence the entire genome of volunteers, which when stitched together with personal medical histories, would forge a pathway into personalized medicine.


    The first 10 volunteers -- the PGP10 -- included noted personalities such as Church himself; entrepreneur and investor, Esther Dyson; cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker; and geneticist, author, and PLoS Blogger, Misha Angrist.

    The PGP10 more or less acted as a proof-of-concept for the idea of sequencing genomes of volunteers. But knowing that data from 10 people would provide but a glimpse of personal medicine, the PGP set its sights higher:   

  4. Where does the funding for the PGP come from? Bobe gave a nod to its donors, which span large grant-making institutions, as well as internet search magnates:

  5. Next, Bobe talked about the DIYBio movement, an effort to bring life science from the laboratory bench to people's backyards, garages, and workshops. It's an idea that's gaining traction, as pointed out in a story by Erin Biba in the September issue of Wired, and the growing number of participants.

  6. DIYBio projects are varied, from the equipment used, to the theory being tested, to the area of the world that the amateur scientist calls home: 

  7. The final project Bobe discussed was Bioweathermap, a citizen-science initiative that asks members of the community to swab crosswalk buttons, door handles, toilet seats, and other breeding grounds for germs to get a sense of the microbial landscape across the globe.
  8. While Bioweathermap currently relies on sporadic measurements that take hours, days, even weeks to process, Bobe imagines a time in the distant future where sequencing could be done consistently and in real-time.


    As a thought exercise, Bobe told the group to imagine walking into a room full of people, and a heads-up display on pair of glasses instantly shows all of the species surrounding you. What seems like science fiction today, might one day be realized, Bobe proposes, as sequencing technology gets faster, cheaper, and more sophisticated.

    Bobe's talk sparked thoughts in the minds of several members of the audience. One question in particular drew a divisive line among the crowd: as DIYBio gains ground, what will happen to intellectual property (IP) as we know it today? 

  9. Others disagreed, such as Open Science Summit organizer, Joseph Jackson, who believes the economic arguments for pushing science into the Commons are strong. 


    PLoS ONE executive editor Damian Pattinson, wondered how the DIY scientists who use human subjects would plan to publish their work. For example, bakyard biohackers and garage scientists aren't getting Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval before recording their observations. As such, no scientific journal would be able to publish the results. 

    Bobe countered with a proposal that these types of observational studies may simply fall out of the traditional realm of scientific research. They may never be published in peer-reviewed journals. But he figures that may be alright, because different types of experiments serve different purposes.

    In all, it was a night of great discussion, another successful #SciBarSpace event for PLoS: 

  10. Stay tuned for updates on next month's event.
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