“The moment I enter a lab, I kill everything,” says Daniel Grushkin, one of the world’s most prominent and successful DIY biohackers.
Grushkin cofounded the famed community lab Genspace in Brooklyn in 2010, and he runs the international Biodesign Challenge, which encourages art students to try their hands at biohacking and showcases winning projects at the Museum of Modern Art. His mission is to make everyday people feel comfortable messing around with biology.
Yet at the recent Biofabricate conference held at Parsons School of Design in New York City, Grushkin and others said that mission has been ill-served by media reports suggesting that anyone can build a biohacking lab in a bedroom closet. Grushkin says the message—that citizen scientists can easily carry out experiments in growing microbes and genetically engineering cells—doesn’t match reality. “Biology is hard,” he says, “and those promises and headlines don’t make things work in the lab.”
No one at Biofabricate was suggesting that would-be biohackers should give up, however; the conference organizers want more people to take life and death into their own hands. And three startups were present to argue that DIYers just need a little technological assist. The companies, Amino Labs, Biorealize, and Spiderwort, all make DIY bio instruments that automate some of the tricky and tedious parts of biology experiments.
These entrepreneurs say the current moment in synthetic biology is akin to the 1970s in computer science, when microcomputers first appeared in kits that could be assembled in hobbyists’ basement workshops. Make it cheap and easy to tinker, they say, and revolution will follow.
Julie Legault was a designer doing research at the MIT Media Lab when she became fascinated by synthetic biology. But she was daunted. “I got access to a lab, but I was terrified,” she says. “Am I going to blow myself up with the autoclave? What organisms should I order? I didn’t know anything.”
Legault decided to make a genetic engineering kit that she compares to a kid’s easybake oven or a chemistry set. Now she’s the CEO of Amino Labs; she’s shipping her first batch of Bioproduction Labs to backers from her Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, and she’s taking orders for more. This first set of about 70 machines was lovingly hand-crafted; Legault says she’s currently looking into manufacturers.
The Bioproduction Lab makes genetic engineering easy: It walks the user through steps to insert DNA into bacteria and grow bacterial colonies on a plate. The company sells kits with all the ingredients for a simple experiment that results in colorful bacteria, with the microbes expressing one of seven pigments (the buyer can specify cyan, magenta, violet, etc). Legault says her team is working on kits that will make aromatic bacteria (vanilla, banana, or mint) as well as microbes that glow with bioluminescence.
The lab is somewhat pricey at $1700, but Legault says it replaces several pieces of lab equipment that would cost many thousands of dollars to assemble. It was carefully designed to avoid the intimidation factor, Legault says; with its wooden exterior, “it looks like something that belongs in the home.”
The company also sells a more basic device for $350, the DNA Playground, which Legault says was inspired by brightly colored children’s toys.
Amino Lab plans to sell kits for many different experiments, which teachers and makers can browse through like an app store. But Legault also hopes that DIYers will gain enough confidence to invent their own experiments. Using the kits is like using an early microcomputer to play a premade BASIC game, she says, but things really got interesting when hobbyists started creating their own.
Microbial Design Studio
Orkan Telhan teaches a studio art course on biological design at the University of Pennsylvania, and he wanted to make things easier for his students. So he set out to build a tool that would streamline the processes of genetic engineering so the students wouldn’t have to worry about sterilization, incubation, and other boring biology steps. “They can worry only about the design,” Telhan says. His startup, Biorealize, is making a tool that wouldn’t seem out of place in an atelier or art studio.
With the Microbial Design Studio, the user can work on eight organisms simultaneously. The user places little DNA cartridges into the machine and the DNA is automatically inserted into the microbes, which are parceled out into eight plastic syringes that serve as incubators. The machines can also add reagents to the tubes during incubation, and can kill the microbes at the end of the process and prepare the sample for analysis.
At Biofabricate, Telhan was showing off the third-generation machine. He’s now making 20 units for beta testing by key biohacking groups, including the university teams that participate in the Biodesign Challenge. He estimates that a finished unit will cost between $3000 and $5000, but stresses that he’s trying to make it as cheap as possible. He hopes to start sales in September.
To demonstrate the Microbial Design Studio’s capabilities, Telhan worked with a product designer on an experiment kit that shows the user how to engineer “golden yeast” that produces vitamin A. The yeast can then be used to bake what Telhan’s team calls “microbial donuts.” The resulting bioengineered donuts look tasty, but can you eat them? “Pending regulation, I say no,” Telhan says.
Telhan says his machine is good enough for use by professional scientists who will see it as a cheap replacement for grad student labor, but he also foresees people doing serious science in their own homes. As an example, he points to the Open Insulin Project started by California biohackers, who are trying to insert a gene for insulin production into bacteria. “In the future, more and more people will need these machines not just to tinker, but to make things for their own consumption,” Telhan says.
Spiderwort Open CO2 Incubator
For the biohacker who wants to move beyond microbes, Spiderwort’s CO2 incubator for growing human and animal cells may be just the thing. Andrew Pelling, who runs a lab at the University of Ottawa, decided to build it based on his frustration with expensive lab equipment. “An incubator is basically a warm box that costs $10,000,” he says. “Every lab has them: We have four in my lab.”
So, while he was on sabbatical at the University of Western Australia, he decided to build an incubator out of garbage. He ended up making a functional incubator that controlled temperature and CO2 level (which affects the pH of solutions) for about $300. He only had to plunk down money for the CO2 sensor and an Arduino board to run the controls.
It wasn’t pretty. But he proudly posted his open-source design online. “I obsessed over this for four months, and wanted to give back to the biohacker community,” Pelling says. “So I was extremely disappointed the next day to find all these emails from people who wanted to buy the incubator. Nobody wanted to dig around in the garbage.”
Now Spiderwort’s incubator is a polished product in beta testing, and Pelling is planning a Kickstarter campaign for early 2017 to fund the move into production. He expects to price the incubator at around $1000.
Pelling’s also working on other pieces of open-source lab equipment for DIYers. He can’t wait to see what people will do when they can mess around with animal and human cells. “It’s just a platform,” he says. “It’s waiting for people to use their imaginations.”
Senior Editor Eliza Strickland joined IEEE Spectrum in March 2011 and was initially assigned the Asia beat. She got down to business several days later when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster began. Strickland shared a Neal Award for news coverage of that catastrophe and wrote the definitive account of the accident's first 24 hours. She next moved to the biomedical engineering beat and managed Spectrum's 2015 special report, “Hacking the Human OS." That report spawned the Human OS blog about emerging technologies that are enabling a more precise and personalized kind of medicine. The blog reports on wearable sensors, big-data analytics, and neural implants that may turn us all into cyborgs. Over the years, Strickland watched as artificial intelligence (AI) technology made inroads into the biomedical space, reporting on crossovers between AI and neuroscience research and IBM Watson's ill-fated efforts in AI health care. These days she oversees Spectrum's coverage of all things AI. Strickland has reported on science and technology for nearly 20 years, writing for such publications as Discover,Nautilus, Sierra, Foreign Policy, and Wired. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.