[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
    laboratory robot?

    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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