Synthetic Biology and Citizen Science
Submitting InstitutionManchester Metropolitan University
Unit of AssessmentComputer Science and Informatics
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Mathematical Sciences: Applied Mathematics
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing, Computation Theory and Mathematics
Summary of the impact
This case study is based on research at the interface of computer science
and biology, undertaken at MMU. Subsequent inter-disciplinary work was
partly supported by the EPSRC Bridging the Gaps: NanoInfoBio project, and
led to the creation of a new "citizen science" organization, which is now
one of the leading groups of its type in the world. The specific impacts
are (1) generation of revenue for a new business operation created as a
result of the project, (2) the stimulation of and influence on policy
debate, and (3) the stimulation of public interest and engagement in
science and engineering.
Members of the Novel Computation Group (School of Computing, Mathematics
and Digital Technology, MMU) study alternatives to "traditional" forms of
computing, including new theoretical models and non-silicon physical
substrates . This often requires an inherently
inter-disciplinary approach. One well-established research theme is synthetic
biology: the application of engineering principles to the (re)design
of living biological systems. The Group leader, Prof. Amos, is a
world-leading researcher in the field of molecular computing; his 1997
Ph.D. thesis was the first in the field of DNA computation. In 2006, Amos
published a book  describing this emerging field of biological
computation; a review in Nature (March 15 2007, p. 263-264) stated
that "This is an enjoyable book... I recommend it to anyone interested in
computation writ large who is not afraid to cross disciplinary boundaries
that once seem impassable." Amos contributed to a paper published around
the same time, which called for closer links to be established between
computer science, engineering and the life sciences in order to fulfill
the true potential of bio-inspired computing . To help further
develop such links, two projects were funded at MMU from 2009 onwards. The
Bridging the Gaps: NanoInfoBio (NIB) project at MMU was funded by the
EPSRC in 2009 (EP/H000291/1, £289,095), and ran for 30 months .
The core aim of the project was to bring together researchers from
different disciplines to focus on problems at the intersection of
nanotechnology, informatics and biology. In total, the project supported
21 different projects, with funding ranging from small student bursaries
to £25K grants. BACTOCOM was a European Commission Collaborative Project
(248919, €1,949,997, 2010-2013) to investigate the creation of an
"evolvable" synthetic biology platform . Amos was the PI on
both grants, and, together, they led to a significant increase in the
amount of work at the intersection of biology and computer science, both
at MMU and beyond.
The original NIB proposal stated "An important aspect of the programme's
activities will be public engagement", and public outreach was assigned a
specific work package task within BACTOCOM. One of the public engagement
events we organized was a panel discussion on synthetic biology, which was
attended by Asa Calow, a Director of the Manchester Digital Laboratory
(MadLab). MadLab is an independent open learning and experimentation
environment, and Calow suggested that we collaborate to develop a "DIY
bio" laboratory space in Manchester. This meeting was a direct result
of the public engagement event, as there had been no prior contact. The
resulting proposal was funded by the Wellcome Trust's People Awards scheme
(WT095313MA, £29,705), creating the DIYbio Manchester (DIYBIOMCR) project
. "Do-it-yourself" biology (DIYbio) is a growing international
movement, the aim of which is to democratise and widen access to
biotechnology (which, of course, is of direct relevance to synthetic
biology). The fundamental philosophy of DIYbio is to bring together
interested "amateurs' with professional scientists, with the aim of
stimulating discussion, widening public understanding, and ensuring the
safe and ethical management of amateur experiments. With this project, we
aimed to engage the public with underpinning research in the unit, as well
as with the full range of new ideas and societal issues at the bio/info
interface. When it was set up, DIYBIOMCR was only the second such group in
the UK, and one of only a handful worldwide. The creation of this
organization (and its resulting impact) can therefore be traced directly
back (and attributed) to the NIB project, which, in turn, arose as a
result of research in the unit taking place at the intersection of
computer science and biology.
Prof. Martyn Amos, Chair of Novel Computation; appointed SL, 2006; Reader
2010; Professor 2012.
References to the research
 Goñi-Moreno, A., Amos, M. & de la Cruz, F. (2013)
Multicellular computing using conjugation for wiring. PLOS ONE 8(6),
e65986. (Recent exemplar output of the BACTOCOM project.) doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065986
(1 Google Scholar citation).
 Timmis, J., Amos, M., Banzhaf, W. & Tyrrell, A. (2006)
"Going back to our roots": Second generation biocomputing. International
Journal of Unconventional Computing 2:4, p.p. 349-378. (20
 Jacobs, N. & Amos, M. (2012) NanoInfoBio: A case-study in
interdisciplinary research. In Kettunen, J., Hyrkkanen, U. & Lehto, A.
(Eds.) Applied Research and Professional Education, p.p. 289-309.
Turku University of Applied Sciences. Available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1211.5508.
(An earlier version of this paper, made available in 2010 as an Arxiv
pre-print, has 5 citations).
 Amos, M., Calow, A., Jacobs, N., Jung, H.Y., Linton, T. &
Verran, J. (2012) Manchester DIYbio. In Bowater, L. & Yeoman, K., Science
Communication: A Practical Guide for Scientists, p.p. 250-251,
||Value to MMU
||Bridging the Gaps:
|£289,095, plus additional £50K from EPSRC. Total:
||Sept. 2009-Nov. 2011
Bacterial Computing with Engineering
|€328,426 (Grant total €1,949,997).
||Feb. 2010-Jul. 2013
||Mar. 2011-May 2012
Details of the impact
NIB directly led to the creation of an entirely new organisation.
DIYBIO Manchester (DIYBIOMCR) is now an established independent entity,
the UK's largest "do it yourself" biology group, and is an active
participant in the global DIYbio movement. For a full list of relevant
DIYBIOMCR activities, please see [A,B]. Relevant projects included
the Manchester Microbe Map (a bacterial "atlas" of bus stops in
Manchester), and the construction of "homebrew" DNA replication equipment.
As a result of the project, the turnover of MadLab (the parent
organization) has grown significantly, and, since 2011, an average
of 80% of MadLab's income has been due to DIYBIOMCR. The MadLab finance
manager, provided the following figures on 14/11/13:
||Unrelated to DIYBIO
These show income that is directly attributable to the
DIYBIOMCR project, including income from the Wellcome Trust,
consultancies, residencies, paid workshops and other collaborative
projects that arose as a result of the work done on DIYBIOMCR.
A deposition from MadLab Director states that "DIYBIOMCR has brought much
positive attention to MadLab, and exposed the organization to a wide range
of new audiences. We have become much more outward-facing, as opposed to
focusing on community groups and in-house training. At the time, the
Wellcome Trust funding was MadLab's largest single block of external
money, and represented its most significant external relationship with
another organization. This seed-corn money, in turn, gave access to more
funding, and allowed MadLab to present itself in a different light to
external bodies. To put it bluntly, the Wellcome Trust "seal of approval"
gave MadLab a significant "cachet", on which we have since built. MadLab
is now in the process of converting into a Community Interest Company, and
we have separately raised £160K of the £250K we need to refurbish our
space. Much of the money raised has come from local and national sources
that have been developed and nurtured as a direct result of DIYBIOMCR." [C]
In recent years the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has
developed a DIY bio program that aims to share information and make
connections between amateur scientists and local law enforcement officers.
The objective is to address any concerns (on either side of the regulatory
"fence"), and to provide a framework for ongoing discussions. The Bureau's
local Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) coordinators are the focal point
of such conversations, and ensure that local authorities (e.g., fire and
police service, environmental health) are informed of the nature and
location of cooperating DIY biology laboratories. The FBI also works
closely with the Department of State on biosecurity, and the Department of
Health and Human services on biosafety.
As a result of our high-profile activities, the FBI invited DIYBIOMCR
participants Asa Calow and Rachel Turner to attend a workshop held in San
Francisco on 12-14/6/2012; Calow and Turner were the only UK-based
participants in attendance, and they were specifically invited as a direct
consequence of the outcomes of DIYBIOMCR. The purpose of the workshop was
to "educate the FBI about biology" (in the context of the growing DIY
biology movement), and to "foster the positive relationship among FBI,
DIYbio, amateur biology and local stakeholder communities to ensure safe
conduct in science." [D] The FBI explicitly stated that "we want
to model this for the international community..." (that is, they
want to help to develop policy and practice, both within
the US and beyond). Their explicit aim is to help to avoid extra
regulation of DIYbio scientists "that hinders their abilities to push
scientific progress. Ultimately, it will be up to the communities
themselves how they wish to operate, and the FBI will continue to work
with them to further their efforts." [D].
A subsequent email (27/7/2012) to Calow and Turner from an FBI
supervisory special agent with the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)
Directorate in Washington DC stated that "I wanted to thank you again for
agreeing to come and present at the event ... Your perspective on media
issues was delivered so well that I believe that a great impact was left
[on] the attendees ... It really left a great impression on me that some
direction and reinforcement is being given to this community in
proactively engaging the media, to their ultimate benefit." [D]
A later message (10/6/2013) to Prof. Amos from the FBI Special Agent
(about the DIYBIOMCR contribution) stated that "their insight, engagement
within their community and energy makes them, in my eyes, a leader in
being a proactive member of the amateur biology community... These steps
take a long time to climb, but it seems as if they have been very
successful in developing a working model that serves their community.
Additionally, Rachel's input regarding interactions with the media have
kept this issue in high standing for our future events with this
The total immediate (in-person) audience reached was around 700 for
DIYBIOMCR [B]. Results were disseminated widely, and though
high-profile channels such as pieces (both 28/3/2012) on the main BBC
Ten-o-clock News (estimated viewing figure: 4.75M) and Radio 4's Today
programme (average weekly audience of around 7M) [E,F].
Sources to corroborate the impact
All public sources are linked from http://www.scmdt.mmu.ac.uk/cir/REF
[A] DIYBIOMCR activities (during and after the grant):
Full list of projects/activities at http://www.scmdt.mmu.ac.uk/cir/REF
Manchester Microbe Map online at http://www.danhett.com/projects/microbe/.
Nature SpotOn blog article on DIYBIOMCR at http://www.nature.com/spoton/2012/12/spoton-nyc-diy-science-manchester-digital-laboratory-madlab/.
Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Adviser and DIYBIOMCR contact (details
uploaded into the REF submission system)
[B] DIYBIOMCR evaluation:
Final Evaluation Report, Sally Fort. Available at
[C] Impact of DIYbio on MadLab organization:
Deposition from Director, MadLab (full details uploaded into the
[D] FBI/DIYBIOMCR consultation:
Information on FBI workshop available from link at top. Emails from FBI
Special Agent (full details uploaded into the REF submission system)
(27/6/12 and 10/6/13), plus Guardian Northerner blog article,
18/6/12 at http://bit.ly/189MVcQ
[E] Media coverage (TV):
28/3/2012: DIYBIOMCR featured on BBC Ten O'Clock News; write-up
available at BBC Online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17511710.
Viewing figures for BBC1 from www.barb.co.uk
for week ending April 1 2012.
[F] Media coverage (radio):
28/3/2012: DIYBIOMCR featured on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme.
Recording available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9709000/9709494.stm.
Today programme figures from http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/feb/02/radio-4-today-audience-figures-boost.