Spotlight on: biohacking & Elliot Roth: “It’s algae time”
Algae make two thirds of our oxygen, and this biohacker is going to make them a nutritious part of our diet - from outer space to the kitchen table.
Since our workshop on biohacking at WIRED: Next Generation in London a few years ago, we’ve gotten ourselves a DNA Foundry and are building our capabilities in Synthetic Biology. But some people do their biohacking outside of classic academia, including Elliot Roth, who shares my passion for algae.
Before I began writing about science, I was performing it - and did my PhD focusing on algae, the tiny (or sometimes large), green (or sometimes not green), organisms that most people know through having to clean them off their fish tank (or just through buying the right organisms to help eat them).
At Earlham Institute, algae are just one of the myriad set of organisms that we research in order to help decode living systems. Elliot Roth, ardent biohacker, founder of Spira and co-founder of Indie Lab, tells us how he is tackling algae research and biohacking, while at the same time democratising and open-sourcing scientific research.
So Elliot, what got you into biohacking and how did you become a biohacker?
I started looking into synthetic biology at 14 when I heard about Roger Tsien’s research on GFP. I then failed at convincing my high school biology teacher to let me tinker with frogs to make glowing tadpoles for my friends. I was a huge sci-fi nerd and thought the idea of controlling DNA was pure magic. Jump forward to an unsuccessful attempt to join the Virginia iGEM team at 16 (I was rejected because of insurance issues), and an unfulfilling position in a systems biology lab washing dishes, I decided to strike out on my own.
Academia was very hierarchical and industry had a lack of ownership. I was interested in pursuing some strange cutting-edge ideas that wouldn’t fit inside of the box. So in 2014, with a physicist and an analytical chemist, I co-founded Indie Lab, a nonprofit community science laboratory. We built a space in a garage and packed it with equipment scavenged from dumpster-diving at the university, repairing stuff off Ebay, and getting donations from local businesses.
Being mostly self-taught, I started with electronics hardware and code then gravitated towards microbial engineering using online resources and auditing courses. The thing that helped most was connecting to the incredibly active community of biohackers on Facebook. They’re a wonderful bunch and very supportive.
What projects have you worked on in the past?
I’ve investigated keratin bioprinting (a very stinky process), growing my own tiny home with mycelium, and transcranial direct current stimulation. My thesis of work is to solve physiological needs using simple DIY biotechnology.
What excites you most about biohacking??
It’s the idea of working with nature to solve all sorts of problems. The ability to expand human potential, explore the possibilities of life, and improve our world. I am constantly concerned about the diffusion of technology, therefore the democratization and open-source nature of biohacking ensures that anyone, anywhere can work with biology.
We all have DNA within us and so it only makes sense that we should be able to understand and control it. The moonshot advances in technology don’t necessarily come from industry but from the garage hackers that make something world-changing. I believe the next great advances will come from the biohacker community.
Algae are magical, what drew you into their amazing world?
I’m a huge space geek and when I was without a consistent supply of good nutrition, I looked into ways that NASA was growing nutrition for astronauts in space. I stumbled across spirulina and compared the nutritional values to Soylent (a meal-replacement beverage in the US). I found them to be almost comparable. You can produce nearly all the nutrition you need daily with just a few varieties of algae in a tiny amount of space. Using my garage lab, I started growing and eating spirulina daily. After getting a small investment from RebelBio, I turned growing algae into a full-time job.
What is, in your opinion, an alga - because I think the jury is out on most eukaryotic single-celled life?
“Alga” is normally used to describe both macroalgae and microalgae. Macroalgae are kelp, seaweed, dulse, and larger plants that dwell in the water. Microalgae are photosynthetic microorganisms that range from edible prokaryotic single-celled cyanobacteria (what I work with), to flagella-propelled eukaryotes, to protists and more.
There definitely needs to be a clearer distinction - the right definition for the microalgae I work with is cyanobacteria but telling people they’re going to be eating cyanobacteria tends to freak them out.
We were calling spirulina an ancient superfood for a time because the Aztecs used to cultivate and eat it, but for now we’re just calling it algae because it’s more understandable and easier to digest (pun intended).
How can genomics help us to unravel the secrets of our tiny green (and pink and brown and red) friends?
There are relatively few species of algae that are sequenced, and there are millions of unknown species. Since algae form the basis of much of life on Earth, there is a whole world of possibility in terms of unsequenced genes. Novel proteins, medicines, flavors and more are lying dormant in a vial of pond water waiting to be sequenced and analyzed.
By learning more about our photosynthetic friends, we can tap into an entire kingdom of possibility. There’s a bunch of ways to begin to understand this vast network of complex organisms ranging from DNA barcoding to protein extraction to incorporating algae in foods. I’m incredibly excited about the potential of getting everyday people involved in understanding how to work with our little pals.
What advice do you have for budding scientists?
A few things: read papers constantly and test out small experiments yourself (make sure to keep notes and always write stuff down). The second thing I’d recommend is to reach out to your heroes. They’re regular people too and if you approach them with some questions or an idea you’d be surprised at how often they respond. Lastly make sure whatever you’re doing you’re having fun and understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s easy to get caught up in the humdrum of work so it’s important to keep a good perspective.
What is the future of biohacking?
More and more we’re beginning to see garage labs and DIYbio communities coming out with clever advances in biotechnology. I’m excited to see genetic engineering become a consumer technology similar to gardening or building a website where you can pick up the skills at your local community lab.
In addition, I think we’ll see the rise of digital-to-biological converters, home food replication systems and human modification [not necessarily genetic, but for personal medicinal use, including monitoring of diseases such as diabetes - PB]. The future is an interesting place and I’m excited to be in the middle of it.