[Paleopsych] Wired: Rob Carlson: Who needs a geneticist? Build your own DNA lab
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Thu May 12 19:13:39 UTC 2005
Rob Carlson: Who needs a geneticist? Build your own DNA lab
Splice It Yourself
The era of garage biology is upon us. Want to participate? Take a
moment to buy yourself a molecular biology lab on eBay. A mere $1,000
will get you a set of precision pipettors for handling liquids and an
electrophoresis rig for analyzing DNA. Side trips to sites like
BestUse and LabX (two of my favorites) may be required to round out
your purchases with graduated cylinders or a PCR thermocycler for
amplifying DNA. If you can't afford a particular gizmo, just wait six
months - the supply of used laboratory gear only gets better with
time. Links to sought-after reagents and protocols can be found at
DNAHack. And, of course, Google is no end of help.
Still, don't expect to cure cancer right away, surprise your loved
ones with a stylish new feather goatee, or crank out a devilish
frankenbug. (Instant bioterrorism is likely beyond your reach, too.)
The goodies you buy online require practice to use properly. The
necessary skills may be acquired through trial and error, studying
online curricula, or taking a lab course at a community college.
Although there are cookbook recipes for procedures to purify DNA or
insert it into a bacterium, bench biology is not easy; the many
molecular manipulations required to play with genes demand real
Science, after all, involves doing things no one has done before, and
it most often requires developing new art. But art can be learned,
and, more important, this kind of art can be taught to robots. They
excel at repetitive tasks requiring consistent precision, and an
online search will uncover a wide variety of lab automation tools for
sale. For a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, you can purchase
boxy-looking robots with spindly arms that handle platefuls of
samples, mix and distribute reagents - and make a fine martini. Some
of the units are sophisticated enough that you can teach them all the
new tricks published in fancy journals. Just make sure you have plenty
of electrical outlets.
That said, actually manipulating a genome with your new tools requires
learning something about software that helps design gene sequences.
These bioinformatics programs are all over the Web, and in no time
you'll be tweaking genome sequences on your computer late into the
night. But while you may discover some interesting relationships
between organisms, and with access to the right databases you may even
find a connection between a mutation and a disease (no mean
contribution, to be sure), the real work gets done at the lab bench.
If you want to get down and dirty bashing DNA, order genetic parts
suitable for use in E. coli from the synthetic biology group at MIT
(available soon). These genes constitute a library of defined
components that can be assembled into control systems for biological
computation, or used to program bacteria in order to produce
interesting proteins and other compounds. There's even an online
design tool for genetic circuits. If you're more into hacking plants -
perhaps you want true plastic fruit growing on your tomato vine or
apple tree - head to BioForge, where you can get expert info.
Concern that these resources can be used intentionally to create
hazardous organisms is overblown. Relatively few labs possess all the
necessary equipment for the task. Despite the recent demonstration of
working viruses constructed from mail-order DNA, repeating those feats
would be difficult.
Yet it is getting easier to synthesize whole genomes, particularly if
your aims aren't sinister. Instead of trying to assemble a viral or
bacterial genome yourself, you can order the whole sequence online
from Blue Heron Biotechnology, where researchers will first check it
for genes in known pathogens and toxins, and then, two to four weeks
later, FedEx you the DNA. A few thousand dollars will buy a couple of
genes, enough for a simple control circuit; soon it will buy most of a
bacterial genome. And your Synthetic Biology at Home project will get
easier when microfluidic DNA synthesizers hit the market. These have
already been used to write sequences equivalent in size to small
bacterial genomes, a capability currently limited to a few academic
and industrial labs - but not for much longer.
The advent of garage biology is at hand. Skills and technology are
proliferating, and the synthesis and manipulation of genomes are no
longer confined to ivory towers. The technology has even reached the
toy market: The Discovery DNA Explorer kit for kids 10 and older (see
Wired, issue 11.12) is surprisingly functional at $80, and how long
will it be before we see a Slashdot story about a Lego Mindstorms
Sure, few high school students will be able to pay for this equipment
with their earnings from Mickey D's, but anyone who spends a few thou
on cars, boats, or computers can get to work hacking biology tomorrow.
Rob Carlson (carlson at ee.washington.edu) is a senior scientist in the
Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington.
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