Two Crowdfunded Machines Make Biotechnology Accessible to All

“I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.”

Freeman Dyson wrote these words in a piece called “Our Biotech Future” in The New York Times Book Review in 2007. By ‘domestication’, he means, quite literally, getting the tools and technology traditionally reserved for high-tech labs and universities “into the hands of housewives and children.”

Seven years later, we have a thriving group of scientists, entrepreneurs, and enthusiastic amateurs bringing us technology to do just that.

A recent Kickstarter campaign called Open qPCR offers a sleek touch screen PCR thermocycler, with a price tag of $1500 (most commercial PCR machines cost upwards of $20,000). The machine not only copies DNA but also converts it to easily understandable data, made by the same team who brought us the original OpenPCR, which was successfully funded in 2010.

Open qPCR is a real-time diagnostic tool able to detect foodborne contaminants like E. coli and Listeria and help track the spread of infections like HIV, malaria and Ebola. It offers a web interface for visually designing experiments, powerful functionality for experimentation, and presents clear positive/negative results to end user. It’s accessible enough that a tech-savvy mother can determine if the tomatoes from the store are truly GMO free or whether her dog truly is true bred.

With under a week to go, the campaign has tripled it’s original goal of $50k and new stretch goals have been announced to help in the fight against Ebola.

A concurrently running Kickstarter, called OpenTrons, offers a $2000 “liquid-handling” robot which automates manual micropipetting work, accounting for much of the tedious and error-prone human labor necessary to carry out an experiment.

OpenTrons allows users to design protocols in software called MixBio, a modular drag and drop interface, and to run the experiment on OpenTrons, which handles the micropipetting work. The software allows you to receive feedback on your protocols from the community, rapidly increasing innovation, collaboration, and progress.

The campaign is down to it’s last few days, but recently hit it’s $100k goal.

Truth is, biohacking is harder and way less glamorous than it sounds. So far, scientists and researchers who don’t have access to high cost robotic equipment to automate these processes spend most of their time moving tiny amounts of liquid around by hand. True progress takes a very long time when you’re running experiments manually and in the vacuum of an isolated lab.

This is precisely what makes OpenTrons and Open qPCR powerful – not only are they are accessible and affordable but they both offer software which makes data analysis and collaboration much easier.

As Dyson stated in his essay, building the tools necessary to carry out valuable scientific experiments while making them widely available and user friendly is the next step towards the domestication of biotech. But he also asked whether the domestication of biotechnology could be and ought to be stopped?

Projects like OpenTrons and Open qPCR make it hard to argue the fact that we are indeed moving swiftly into an age of domesticated biotechnology. In fact, the movement is a diverse decentralized global network. Stanford recently opened up a state-of-the-art bioengineering building on their campus and teenagers from Brooklyn to Paris are taking ‘biohacking’ classes for fun.

There’s no ‘off’ switch to hit to shut momentum like this down, but there’s also no compelling reason to do so as the potential value greatly outweighs the risk.

Ellen Jorgensen makes a good case for this point in her TED talk, saying “[The United Nations] concluded the power of this technology for positive was much greater than the risk for negative, and they even looked specifically at the DIYbio community, and they noted, not surprisingly, that the press had a tendency to consistently overestimate our capabilities and underestimate our ethics.”

In terms of regulation, so far, the community is doing a solid job imposing limits and regulating itself. Jorgensen goes on to say that the global community got together in 2011 and wrote out a common code of ethics, adding “that’s a lot more than conventional science has done.” Of course, this process of setting and regulating limitations will evolve over time, and will be adopted into legislation eventually, but for the time-being it’s happening in a very self-driven, organic way. Groups like Jorgensen’s GenSpace in Brooklyn are working directly with the FBI to educate law-enforcement officials on the work and culture of the movement and identify potentially dangerous situations.

Today, we’ve not even begun to imagine the possible value this technology can bring once in the home of individuals.

Thomas Watson of IBM now-famously said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” in 1943. Of course, the thing he called a computer took up an entire room. We don’t yet know what the personal computer version of biotech and synthetic biology is yet, but we can guess that OpenqPCR and OpenTrons are the forefathers of whatever it turns out to be.

The hope is that coming generations build the beautifully vibrant future that Dyson imagines, where designing genomes becomes a new personal art, as creative as painting or sculpture, and “a new generation of artists will be writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses.”

[image credit: pipettes courtesy of Shutterstock]

Sveta McShane
Sveta McShane
Sveta writes about the intersection of biology and technology (and occasionally other things). She also enjoys long walks on the beach, being underwater and climbing rocks. You can follow her @svm118.
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