Seattle's only community lab puts a DIY spin on biotech

Tucked away on a U District sidestreet, SoundBio Lab caters to anyone who wants to experiment with molecular biology.

SoundBio Lab co-founder Regina Wu, left, prepares DNA samples for a gel electrophoresis test at the lab's U District location on Feb. 27, 2019. (All photos by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday, and high school senior Sienna Patton is creating millions of lifeforms.

Three days a week for the past two weeks, she’s been stationed at a homemade workbench in a makeshift molecular biology laboratory no bigger than a wrestling ring, tucked away on a U District side street across from an Audi dealership. Patton is tweaking her approach to growing E. coli bacterial colonies that carry proteins derived from jellyfish: Under UV light, the bacterial cultures fluoresce one of six colors. She wants to see whether incubating them in different materials makes them grow faster or glow more brightly.

She tips an amber, yeast-based syrup (known in the biology world as “terrific broth”) into a petri dish and spreads it evenly before it cools. Normally, a lab with equipment like this would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars brand-new. But to gain access to an entire bacterial kingdom for her senior project, the Nathan Hale High School student didn’t even need to send in an application.

“I came in, talked with [lab manager] Yoshi Goto … and he said, ‘OK, sounds great,’” she says. “I was like, wait, that’s it? I can just come here?

Nathan Hale High School senior Sienna Patton works with lab manager Yoshi Goto during a group meeting at SoundBio Lab in Seattle's University District, Feb. 27, 2019. 

Patton pays $10 a month for a membership to SoundBio Lab, Seattle’s only community biotechnology laboratory. The 2-year-old nonprofit lab caters to anyone who wants to experiment with molecular biology, microbiology and other life sciences that help us understand and alter genetic codes. Equipped with a menagerie of donated tools — used PCR machines, centrifuges, autoclaves and much more — and a mostly volunteer staff, SoundBio gives people of all ages and experience levels opportunities to learn and practice the essentials of a field that seems out of reach to many people, both intellectually and financially.

Co-founder Zach Mueller believes biotechnology is the next era-defining industry. An Amazon data scientist by day, he thinks making these expensive tools available to a broader diversity of potential scientists who might not otherwise learn to use them could help biotech evolve in a more democratic and equitable direction than corporate-dominated tech. Having seen the tech industry boom under the direction of white men like himself, he’s concerned about seeing the same happen in biotech, where the stakes by definition are personal by definition.

“I want to make sure steps are taken in its early days to involve a diverse range of people, because genetics vary based on your background,” he says. “I want to make sure those things are worked on [by diverse people], so we’re not just focused on the problems experienced by people who are already doing just fine in their lives.

“Having worked in the tech industry, where having a computer gave me [the option] to disrupt anything I want through software, I think having access to biotech is the next place where that same kind of disruption can happen,” says Mueller.

In the age of mind-bending gene editing tools like CRISPR, Mueller and his staff also believe providing this hands-on access to biotechnology might make an oft-maligned science less scary.

“Biotech isn’t all crazy scientists creating some mutant cell that can infect the world — most bacteria suck at living outside,” Goto says. “I chose this job over some higher-paying jobs, to be quite honest, because I just think it's so exciting to teach people how to do this. It's not the whole ‘playing god’ thing — it's the idea of humanizing science and stimulating people’s scientific curiosity. I think that can change public opinion and increase the amount of innovation that happens.”

Goto acknowledges that biotechnology as a whole and gene editing in particular can be especially divisive.

“Biotech involves us directly —our bodies — and so it's a harder hurdle for some people to accept what it is,” Goto says. “I know a lot of people who are religious and they have some moral issues with it and I can respect that. But I don’t think they understand how much it can save lives. And scientists suck at communicating.”

The initial inspiration for SoundBio happened in 2014, after Mueller listened to a podcast discussing the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGem) contest, a science fair where 6,000 students attempt to solve real-world problems with synthetic biology. After checking out the contest in Boston and meeting people involved in community biohacking, he joined the now-defunct HiveBio lab in Seattle, where other members introduced him to “wet lab” techniques necessary for genetic experiments.

“I started having it in my mind that I wanted to switch into a biotech career,” Mueller says. “Through the experience of being able to use the lab space at HiveBio, I thought it’d be valuable to provide that opportunity to encourage other people to go into this industry. I wanted it for myself, but also for rest of the community.”

After a brief hiatus hosting lab benches and microscopes in his garage, Mueller and new biohacking friends Regina Wu and Michal Galdzicki secured donated equipment. Mueller found the current SoundBio space on Craiglist in fall 2016.

Sienna Patton's painting-with-bacteria experiment, seen during a group meeting at SoundBio Lab in Seattle's University District, Feb. 27, 2019.

Right now, SoundBio isn’t sustainable: Mueller isn’t paying himself, and he has invested more than $120,000 of his own money in the lab. He expects to spend at least $50,000 more this year to keep it open, but “it’s not money wasted by any means.”

According to Maria Chavez, executive director of Silicon Valley’s Biocurious — the U.S.’s first and largest community biohacking space — there are about 40 community labs in the US.

“Biotech has always been part of science behind a wall — you needed to be either a part of academia or industry to participate in research,” Chavez says. “We are seeing a loss in science literacy and trust in science that has happened by siloing it away from the public in that people don't trust GMOs, they don't trust vaccines, there is disbelief in climate change. Community labs can be part of the solution to bring public trust back to science by giving them a method to hands-on participate in biotech."

Yoshi Goto speaks with high school student Sienna Patton during a group meeting at Sound Bio Lab in Seattle's University District.
Yoshi Goto speaks with high school student Sienna Patton during a group meeting at SoundBio Lab in Seattle's University District, Feb. 27, 2019. 

Since its launch in March 2017, Mueller says, SoundBio has grown from seven paying members to 35. (Members pay monthly dues on a sliding scale depending on their needs.) Thousands of Seattleites participate in the 50 community programs it offers, including science demonstrations and speaking events. Mueller says SoundBio has welcomed “on the order of 400 people” through its doors for group projects and training, like Lab Skills 101 classes.

The lab also hosts a high school team that competes in the annual iGem competition. Goto discovered SoundBio while advising the University of Washington’s college iGem team as a bioengineering undergraduate. He heard about the lab through outreach events and was eventually hired as lab manager, the only full-time paid position.

SoundBio’s team has earned bronze-level awards at the competition both years it has participated; about half of all participating teams earn awards. Forty-eight students signed up for the iGem team this year, and some iGem alums have graduated to pursuing their own independent research.

Sound Bio Lab in Seattle's University District.
SoundBio Lab in Seattle's University District, Feb. 27, 2019.

“I think that biotech is difficult to get into without a particular background — it's easy to be dazzled by the innovations and accomplishments of scientists and overlook the years of experience required to get to that point,” says Dr. Judy Nguyen, head scientist of RAIN Incubator, a biology startup incubator in Tacoma. “The successes of [SoundBio’s] iGEM teams demonstrate that their efforts to promote science education is effective and is setting up the students for futures in science.” 

Not all lab members are students. Professionals in biological and nonbiological fields often volunteer at and join the lab to gain biology skills they can fuse with existing skill sets like computer science. Because academic labs place heavy restrictions on who can join and private labs are typically off-limits to nonemployees, SoundBio is often the only option for independent scientists and aspirants.

Garima Thakur is a molecular chemist and new mom attending the Lab Skills 101 course. She drove from Kent to start volunteering when she couldn’t find a lab in her area.

“I'm not working at all right now — I have a little daughter so I’m mostly spending time with her these days, so I thought I'd start volunteering in a lab because I'm very passionate about research, actually,” Thakur says. “I have been trying to volunteer in actual labs here but they cannot do it without hiring.”

For some, work or volunteering at SoundBio eventually leads to a biology-based business.

“We're a nonprofit but we're a nonprofit in the sense that we also recognize that starting in biotech is really hard, especially if you want to start a business,” Goto says. “If you're at the level that's below an incubator — like you just have an idea — there's no place you can go.”

A Citizen Salmon group meeting at SoundBio Lab in Seattle's University District, Feb. 27, 2019. 

Synthetic biologist Dr. Sean Sleight wanted to turn his homebrewing hobby into a business, so in April 2017, he launched Sleight Brewing out of SoundBio. His biology consulting business offered beer analytics and quality control measures for breweries and homebrewers. His lab activities included adjusting yeast strains, testing batches for contamination, and more. After working with more than 20 customers — including developing a yeast pitch for Stoup Brewing and other area breweries — he turned the company back into a hobby and took a full-time job at Arzeda.

“To start my lab from scratch would have been a huge investment — probably over $50K — not only to purchase all the equipment required, but also to pay the rent,” he says. “It wasn't really a feasible option, so SoundBio made it possible for me to run a successful business.”

But the highest-profile project at SoundBio so far might be Citizen Salmon. The 5-year-old project traveled with Mueller, Wu and current lab adviser Galdzicki from HiveBio Lab.

Citizen Salmon hopes to create a portable genotyping test to identify salmon species.

“That has large implications for if you want to sustainably harvest and buy your fish, because a lot of people don’t want Atlantic salmon anymore because it's farmed,” says Regina Wu, who works in Fred Hutch’s Science Education Partnership. “It's the one thing that we've always focused around, and it seems like it’s a local issue people would be interested in and a great way to get people interested in science as a whole.”

Members of the Citizen Salmon community extract salmon DNA, run gel electrophoresis (a process of dividing out chains of salmon DNA molecules to better identify the species) or simply help with computation. But Wu says the project is still a long way from launch.

“Just to put it in perspective, we meet for two to three hours once a week, with the option of doing work at home, but you can only do so much at home,” she says. “We're really hoping that the primers that we made are successful. But I would say [we’re] at least a year away.”

Sienna Patton's painting with bacteria experiment, seen during a group meeting at Sound Bio Lab in Seattle's University District.
Sienna Patton's painting-with-bacteria experiment, seen during a group meeting at SoundBio Lab in Seattle's University District, Feb. 27, 2019. 

But scientific breakthroughs happen all the time at SoundBio. Twenty minutes later, Wu and three other Citizen Salmon members revise those estimates.

“Whoa, did we get it?" Wu  says amidst a flurry of excitement.. "Oh my god, it worked! Yes! Yay, it means our timeline is shorter!”

Mueller’s goal in the short-term is fundraising and expanding the available number of community group projects. Founders also have plans to opening another space in South Seattle, in hopes of reaching a more diverse group of students.

“Biotech isn't necessarily a human right, but my thought is that access to knowledge is,” Wu says. “So there is no reason why someone at Tesla STEM should be able to do lab science versus someone in a Title 1 school.”

The gap in access is stark — even for students like Patton, who attend well-funded schools that don’t offer the resources she needs to complete her senior project.

“I been interested in biology probably since my first bio class in seventh grade, but this is the first real lab I've been involved with,” says Patton. “I've learned a lot more than in high school bio class for sure. I didn't know what [the DNA amplification process] PCR was a few months ago [when I first started training at the lab] and now I've performed it.”

Patton’s project is designed to pay biotech curiosity forward to an even younger group of potential enthusiasts. Once she figures out which growing variables help her plasmid-adjusted E. Coli samples grow best and brightest, she plans to take them to area preschools, where kids can “paint” with the bacteria by brushing it onto petri dishes, letting them sit in an incubator overnight, and then shining UV lights on them the next day.

Her project will help SoundBio offer Plasmid Painting programs to more preschools in the area, and eventually in places like South Seattle or Kent, where they will reach a more diverse group of students.

“iGem has been great for us — the students are super rock star people — but they come from families that are usually starting from that more well-off place,” Mueller says. “If we have a mission of wanting to make biotech successful, it’s not enough to make it technically available to everyone. We have to go out and make people think it’s something they can go experience.”

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