Biohacking for fun and profit
Meredith Patterson is not your typical genetic scientist. Her laboratory is based in the dining room of her San Francisco apartment. She uses a plastic salad spinner as a centrifuge and Ziploc plastic bags as airtight containers for her samples. But the genetically modified organism (GMO) she is attempting to create on a budget of less than $500 could provide a breakthrough in food safety.
The 31-year-old ex-computer programmer and now biohacker is working on modifying jellyfish genes and adding them to yoghurt to detect the toxic chemical melamine, which was found in baby milk in China last year after causing a number of deaths, and kidney damage to thousands of infants. Her idea is to engineer yoghurt so that in the presence of the toxin it turns fluorescent green, warning the producer that the food is contaminated. If her experiment is successful, she will release the design into the public domain.
“I haven’t had a huge amount of success so far,” says Patterson. “But science is often about failing until you get it right.” She has decided to invest in an electro porator she found on eBay for $150, which should speed things up. “It’s actually not that hard. It’s a bit like making yoghurt. And if there’s material left over from the experiment, I can eat it,” she says.
Patterson is just one of dozens of citizen scientists setting up their own gene laboratories in the hope of inventing new and useful organisms. A community is evolving to take advantage of low-cost, off-the-shelf genetic parts and increasing knowledge in biological engineering. International competitions such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) and io9 Mad Science contest have already produced a number of stars, with practical innovations in medicine, agriculture and biocomputing.
Yes, the tinfoil-hat brigade is already up in arms!
MacKenzie Cowell is a founding member of Boston-based DIYbio, which provides tools and advice to biohackers. In May they will co-ordinate the first “Flash Lab”, sending out 1,000 volunteers to take swabs from pedestrian crossing buttons around Boston. The data will be analysed to produce a BioWeatherMap of bacteria roaming the city.
“We think we’ll pick up all sorts of surprising stuff,” says Cowell. “I was sick for three days with the symptoms of salmonella last year, before finding out there had been an outbreak in New York where I was staying.” This inspired him to start the project, which has been nicknamed “Google Flu”. “We hope to get out and do these once a month,” he says, “but it could happen far more frequently.”
Benefits may come from increased access and transparency in science, but sometimes the authorities have difficulty recognising it. In 2004, the art professor Steve Kurtz was arrested as a suspected bioterrorist because Petri dishes with bacteria in them were found at his home in New York state, after his wife had died of a heart attack. Last year Victor Deeb, a retired chemist, had his basement laboratory taken apart by US environmental officials after a fire in the apartment upstairs. He was trying to make safe surface coatings for food containers using chemicals less hazardous than those found in household cleaners.
RTFA. Interesting and more examples of DIY inventors.
The phenomenon isn’t new or surprising to anyone who reads more than the comics or Wall Street analyses – and similar fiction. We are a species which loves to tinker. It’s how radio advanced. It’s probably how we got the fracking wheel.