Open lab in Ghent experiments with do-it-yourself biology

Summary

The non-profit ReaGent offers amateurs high-tech equipment and facilities to carry out scientific experiments, and now wants to involve more children from difficult socio-economic backgrounds

Science for all

You don’t need to be a seasoned researcher to carry out experiments at ReaGent. This non-profit laboratory is open to anyone with an interest in biosciences like microbiology and biotechnology.

The do-it-yourself biology lab opened in March in the basement of the Ghent fabrication laboratory Timelab, with which ReaGent co-operates. The initiative is the brainchild of three Flemish friends: Niek D’Hondt, Vincent Mortier and Winnie Poncelet.

“We have a background in biosciences and wanted to bring the discipline closer to the public,” explains Poncelet. “People learn a lot about complicated biological processes in school, but too little about their wide array of possible applications, which are often relatively simple to work with.”

When the three friends read about the international do-it-yourself biology movement, they visited DIY labs in nearby regions and decided to set up their own workspace. While the basement lab looks quite chaotic, it contains many high-tech devices, donated by companies, universities and research centres.

Fit to a tea

One of the experiments involves creating a leather-like textile without the use of animal hide. The material is obtained from kombucha, a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. When dried, the microbial culture found in the drink can be moulded and dyed like conventional leather.

Fashion designers have been experimenting with this sustainable technique for a number of years, but, for now, it presents too many limitations to be commercially viable. “We want to encourage everyone to contribute to the development of the technique, not just academics and professionals,” explains Poncelet. “You don’t need special expertise to work with the materials; like with cooking, you just need to carry out a number of simple steps correctly.”

There is a sort of rock’n’roll atmosphere here that is inspiring

- Filip Bullens of Cojak

While most of the members of ReaGent have some background in biosciences, the non-profit hopes to promote projects from other disciplines and sectors. Filip Bullens, creative director of communication and design bureau Cojak, is convinced that the lab has potential.

“The lab’s accessibility and the pairing of science with creativity are big assets,” says Bullens, who is experimenting with sustainable material based on recycled cardboard and fungi to make chairs and tables. “There is a sort of rock’n’roll atmosphere here that is inspiring.”

Bullens’ partner in life and work, Kristel Peters, is also working with the lab to create no-waste shoes using fungi. Her project is supported by Ghent University College’s school of arts.

Engaging children in need

While the current projects don’t have a clear commercial goal, the more market-oriented initiatives are also welcome, says Poncelet. “For start-up organisations, for example, our lab can help in bridging the gap between the idea and the prototype, because we are accessible and offer affordable services.”

Members pay an annual fee of €40. While the lab is normally open only on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, members can get more flexible access for specific projects.

Those who need the most help usually have the least access to such activities

- Winnie Poncelet of ReaGent

To spread its message, ReaGent organises workshops for both adults and youngsters. “We want to develop a kind of ‘biological literacy’, getting people more familiar with the concrete applications in the field,” explains Poncelet. “So they become more aware of the value of innovations that make life more sustainable, for example.”

The lab also sets up workshops with the Ghent-based Domestic Bugs to teach people how to cultivate mealworms and other insects and use them as ingredients in meals.

For youngsters, ReaGent organises more playful workshops. Children learn to use their smartphones like microscopes or apply molecular techniques to solve a fictional murder case. The lab also provides online manuals for people to set up their own simple workshops at home, such as on discovering the DNA in a banana.

By the end of the year, ReaGent plans to launch a more ambitious educational project across Flanders. As part of Ekoli, volunteers will visit schools to give workshops, with a focus on reaching disadvantaged youth, including refugee children and youngsters from challenging socio-economic backgrounds. “They need the most help,” says Poncelet, “but usually have the least access to such activities.”

The Ekoli project is part of Flanders’ Stem Academy network, which brings together all extracurricular Stem activities and is co-ordinated by the science centre Technopolis in Mechelen. The Stem action plan is the Flemish government’s programme to encourage students to enrol in studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.