Amateur Hobbyists Are Creating Home-Brew Molecular-Biology Labs, but Can They Ferment a Revolution?

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Amateur hobbyists are creating home-brew molecular-biology labs, but can they ferment a revolution?




To do molecular biology on the cheap, biohackers have developed some creative workarounds: • for a $10 microscope, pop the lens o a webcam and stick it back on backwards. • for an $80 centrifuge, order the DremelFuge rotor and attach to a Dremel rotary tool. • for a free 37 ºC incubator, incubate tubes of E. coli in your armpit.

Some standard laboratory equipment such as fume hoods can get quite expensive, but one should not sacrifice safety for cost. For guidance on the necessary equipment, consult with local biohacker groups. Another option is to join the institutional biosafety committee at your local university or medical centre. These committees often have slots for nonscientists. Prices are for used equipment


dubious about whether there is an extensive market for garage molecular biology. No one needs a PCR machine at home, and the accoutrements to biological research are expensive, even if their prices fall daily (see graphic). Then again, the same was said about personal computers, says George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. As a schoolboy, he says, he saw his first computer and fell in love. “Everybody looked at me like, ‘Why on earth would you even want to have one of those?’” Carlson started his garage lab as something of a hobby, but he needed to do it without sapping resources from his lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. He bought equipment such as refurbished micropipettes — a staple in any molecular biology lab — and a used centrifuge on eBay. In 2007, fed up with grant applications and eager to spend more time working in his garage lab, he gave up his position at the university altogether. Carlson decided to follow up on work at the MSI. There, he had been part of a team developing a way to quantify small amounts of proteins in single cells using ‘tadpoles’, in which a protein ‘head’ is attached to a DNA ‘tail’. The head was designed to bind to a protein of interest, and the DNA tail could be amplified and quantified by PCR, allowing researchers to calculate the number of proteins present (see Nature Meth. 2, 31–37; 2005). The tadpoles have economic potential, providing an alternative to the standard approach of using fluorescently tagged antibodies, which provide at best only rough estimates of protein levels. But the original formulation was too expensive to commercialize, says Carlson. “If I could use this protein in the garage in a simple way to show that it would work, then hopefully it would be a product that would be useful in a low-tech setting, out in the field or in a doctor’s office,” he says. As Carlson worked, the idea of garage biohacking was taking off. In May 2008, Jason Bobe, director of community outreach for the Personal Genome Project at Harvard Medical School, and Mackenzie Cowell, a web developer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organized the first meeting

of DIYbio at the Asgard Irish pub, up the road from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. About 25 people turned up. Two years later, there are more than 2,000 subscribers on the DIYbio e-mail list. No one knows how many of those 2,000 are serious practitioners — Bobe jokes that 30% are spammers and the other 70% are lawenforcement officials keeping tabs on the community. But many DIY communities are coalescing: not only in Cambridge, but also in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and the Netherlands. Some of these aim to develop community lab spaces with equipment that users could share for a monthly fee. And several are already affiliated with local ‘hacker spaces’, which provide such services to electronics enthusiasts. For example, the New York DIYbio group meets every week at the work-space of an electronics-hacker collective called NYC...
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