Chapter 9. Interview with Ian Marcus of SynBio4All

An Open, Online Platform for Collaboration on Synthetic Biology Projects

Noah Most

"We all have ideas," Ian Marcus, the project leader of SynBio4All, told me as we sat down at the Citizen Cyberscience Conference 2014, "but why is it that the only people that can come up with ideas are people that have been very myopic in their research?"

While many citizen science programs channel that spirit, top-down initiatives dominate the largely academic-led citizen science landscape. Typically, laypeople are limited to either collecting data (eBird) or recognizing patterns (WhaleFM). Many initiatives define citizen science as merely a way for citizens to help scientists. Although these top-down initiatives have yielded many exciting results, including more than 50 publications out of the Zooniverse citizen science portal, there has been comparatively little support by academics to affirm citizens' capabilities as scientists—able to develop interesting ideas, design valid protocols, and interpret results.

SynBio4All, developed at the Paris Descartes University, aims to help change that. "SynBio4All is an open, online, collaborative platform by which citizen scientists, DIYbiologists, and academics could take a project from start to finish," Marcus explained. "They come up with the idea, they design the project, they help with the lab work if they want, and they disseminate the results to the public. And all of it is open, online, and for everybody to see."

Part massively open online course (MOOC) for synthetic biology, part open laboratory notebook, and part discussion platform, SynBio4All aspires to be a hub for people to learn about synthetic biology and collaborate on open science projects. Anyone, Marcus said, can float an idea on the platform and the community can help build a research plan, aid in the interpretation of results, and even "take [the idea] in a totally different direction."

Marcus wishes that such a platform had existed while he worked on his PhD. "I didn’t know who to talk to and there was no real communication with anyone. It would have been nice to have just this type of platform on which I could say, ‘Has anyone thought about this technique before?’ I found that in the academic lab, things were very closed. We didn’t want to get scooped. You didn’t want to totally say exactly what research you were doing."

The plan is for the research process to be broken down so that beginners are not immediately turned off from the experience. "We don’t want to overwhelm everyone up front, so everything is done in a very digestible manner."

If successful, Marcus hopes that a learning-through-research model will demonstrate a "new style of pedagogy," so that ultimately children, "born scientists," do not have their natural inclinations to experiment "[taken] away from them in this almost factory setting of schools."

With more individuals—both newcomers and veterans—participating in an open process, Marcus wants to improve science itself. "There’s a lot of stuff that we can all share, there are a lot of techniques that a lot of people know that others don’t know, and there are a lot of ideas out there. Bringing it all together in one place could perhaps maximize our efficiency."

However, not every part of the platform is complete: the design plan and project pages are under construction. Perhaps the biggest question is how many citizens will show up. The SynBio4All team would love to see iGEM teams, would-be iGEM teams without funding, and DIYbiologists use their platform.

While Marcus noted that some counter-cultural elements of DIYbio seek to demonstrate that "we don’t need academics," he hopes that by providing a useful communication tool he can "bring the counter and culture together."

If that fails, perhaps the allure of top-notch equipment, project funding, and a lab bench might help. SynBio4All offers a unique pathway for nonprofessionals to land a bench and funding at a synthetic biology lab at Paris Descartes University.

"We’re going to end up having two projects come to our lab" from the platform between June and August, Marcus explained. This lab can support projects both this year and the next. If all goes well, the program will be continued. Moreover, by allowing citizens to showcase their projects on the platform, Marcus hopes to make others in academia more willing to collaborate with citizens in the future.