People are doing biology in their kitchen now, or in rented labs with cheaper equipment:
In Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up a community lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment, including a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80 degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria alive.
Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.
Cowell said such unfettered creativity could produce important discoveries.
“We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game,” he said.
Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in the 1970s.
She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.
Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.
I am intrigued that people are doing this because I have always thought that we pay WAY too much money for most of the equipment we use in biology labs. There are lots of household goods that we use in experiments that are often purchased from special research supply companies rather than the supermarket. Why on Earth we pay 20 bucks for aluminum foil from Fisher when we could just walk down to the drug store is beyond me.
What they seem to be doing is pretty basic molecular stuff like cloning. Cloning is the process of inserting a gene in a vector for expression in another organism. A vector is a circle of DNA that can be read by cells like a bacteria or a yeast. Making modified strains of yeast and bacteria this way requires an incubator, an autoclave, and some fancy enzymes to cut DNA. It also usually requires a computer so that you can look up the sequences of the genes you would like to insert.
These types of experiments don’t require millions of dollars in equipment. Given a reasonable amount of preparation, I am pretty certain that I could do several of my experiments in my kitchen. Or even better, I am certain that I could do an experimental demonstration with them in your average biology high school classroom. That should give you a sense of the complexity that we are dealing with.
So I am pretty dubious of the notion that “organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.” There is no greater risk of that than there is of transgenic bacteria escaping from any of the thousands of molecular biology laboratories in our nation. Genetically modified yeast and E. coli are not considered serious biological hazards because the modified strains require special growing conditions — including selection using antibiotics — to maintain the modification. Otherwise they revert to just plain old yeast and E. coli.
Actually the more likely negative scenario is that these DIY labs will produce absolutely nothing. If you are a PhD researcher with a lot of practice, you could probably get this stuff to work. But these experiments often fail even with experienced researchers in controlled laboratory settings. The much more likely negative side is that many amateur researchers would have trouble getting their stuff to work and waste their money in the process.
Anyway, I am pleased and amused that people are doing stuff like this if for no other reason than it raises the visibility of biologists and removes some of the mystery of what we do. At the same time, however, I will believe “new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels” when I see them.