Do-It-Yourself Biology Comes to Thailand

February 7, 2015 -- Progress Thailand Biological technology, or biotech, has transformative powers that can help or hurt society in many ways. In terms of better understanding our biology, it can help a lot in creating new treatments and cures for diseases and defects. Our ability to take a common bacteria and turn it into a microfactory producing everything from energy to medicine is also a great potential help.

Of course there are many ways this technology can be abused. But the greatest way to prevent that is to ensure as many people as possible understand it, can use it, and can counteract any bad that can be done with it. Currently however, biotech is the sole realm of universities, governments, and large corporations. This is the way it has been since the term "biotech" was coined, but now, that is all changing.

The tools and techniques to work on biotech are cheaper and more accessible than ever. Because of this, smaller start-ups have sprung up all over the world challenging larger organizations and creating new opportunities for more people both in terms of jobs and in beneficial developments.

Along with start-ups are small but growing communities of what are called do-it-yourself biologists practicing "DIYbio." DIYbio is the doorway society will pass through in making biotech as accessible to the average person as computer science is now because of personal computers, open source software, and now smart phones which have become virtually ubiquitous.

Dr. Asawin Meechai (left) and Jittrawan Thaiprasit (right)
If you were in Thailand and wanted to get involved in DIYbio, you'd be resigned to watching YouTube videos and reading articles detailing work being done overseas in places like the United States and Europe, or in Singapore and neighboring Malaysia. But that may be about to change.

We interviewed Dr. Asawin Meechai of King Mongkut's University of Technology (KMUTT) and one of his graduate students, Jittrawan Thaiprasit, who shared with us the exciting work they have been involved in over the past several years. Their interest in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition saw the creation of similar projects being pursued at the university here in Thailand. The iGEM competition sees universities from across the world compete in modifying simple e. coli bacteria into useful or interesting novel organisms that can do everything from light up, convert waste into useful materials, or work as a bio-sensor detecting and indicating substances found in the environment around it.

The iGEM project uses pieces of DNA known as "BioBricks," standardized "blocks" that can be used to help engineer genes more systematically. Using a more standardized approach in genetic engineering is sometimes referred to as "synthetic biology" and helps aid in collaboration and troubleshooting among a larger number of researchers, institutions, and industries. Dr. Asawin explained it as being similar to the use of standard parts in electronics. Rarely will custom parts be made but that is precisely what many traditional genetic engineers are still doing!

DIYbio workshops like this one help in 2014 involving Japanese engineering students demonstrates how accessible biotech is to those interested in participating. While such a workshop would be impossible without trained professionals, they were able to train students with no biology backgrounds to safely and effectively use lab tools to create their own projects.

Standardization also makes biology easier and more accessible to beginners. To prove how simple, Dr. Asawin and his colleagues took 3 Japanese engineering students, teamed them each up with a Thai student, and together taught them basic lab skills and techniques, then walked them through their own projects. It took only one day to teach them the skills they needed, and another to complete their projects.

As technology advances, it will only become easier. But in Thailand, this shifting paradigm seems to be taking everyone by surprise. Little to no interest is shown by Thailand's biotech community. Thailand is one of the few Southeast Asian nations yet to send its own team to the international iGEM competition.

Dr. Asawin and his colleagues would like to see that change.

Everything from leaps in human medicine, a cleaner environment, new materials, and alternative energy sources stand to be unlocked by the pursuit of synthetic biology. DIYbio stands to empower an exponentially larger number of people who can help drive innovations and discoveries in the field of biology and its applications in everyday life.

That's why Dr. Asawin would like to see more interest in Thailand, lest Thailand be left behind during this exciting leap forward. He described today as the age of biology, and believed it will be at least as important as the age of computers. Today, we can clearly see how Thailand has benefited from information technology and computers, surely we can imagine how it will benefit from a similar revolution in biotech.

For those interested in getting involved, please read our more detailed article in BIT Magazine and feel free to contact us there at the end of the article to tell us your story and share with us your ideas.

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