h+ Magazine

Winter 2009.

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Page 46 of 89

47 www.hplusmagazine.com Biological research is expensive. Microscopes, pipetmen, PCR machines, polyacrylamide gels, synthesizers — basics for any molecular biology lab — run from hundreds to thousands of dollars apiece. Traditional experiments cost hundreds-of-thousands to millions of dollars to conduct. How can the hobbyist afford this equipment? unless "Joe (or Jill) the DIYBiologist" is extremely wealthy, they can't. So instead of purchasing brand new equipment, DIYers like to find good deals at auction sites like eBay or Dovebid, refurbish discarded equipment from labs or biotech companies, or — more and more frequently — build it themselves. Hardware hacking has a rich history, filled with geek heroes, and these skills are being turned towards the creation of biotech equipment. On the bleeding edge of it all, some DIYbiologists are applying their skills to h+ technologies. SENS researchers John Schloendorn, Tim Webb, and Kent Kemmish are conducting life-extension research for the SENS Foundation, building equipment for longevity research, saving thousands of dollars doing it themselves. The DIY SENS lab is headed by PhD candidate John Schloendorn. John is a last- year PhD student at Arizona State university. He volunteers full time for the SENS Foundation. Entering his lab was a mind-blowing experience. The ceilings were high, the lab itself was spacious and well-lit. It smelled of sawdust, the product of constructing the furniture on site. The equipment was handmade, but brilliantly so. Elegance and function were clear priorities. When a panel could be replaced with a tinted membrane, it was. When metal could be replaced by sanded wood, it was. The on-site laser was modified from a tattoo-removal system. Costs were down, but the technical skill involved in manufacturing was top notch. In addition to his own experiments, Schloendorn is building an incubator (no pun intended) for DIYbio engineers who work on fighting death. Schloendorn tells me that working by ourselves might only take us so far, but thinks it's a great place to start (many successful discoveries and businesses were founded in someone's garage). He believes that being a DIYer doesn't mean you must "go it alone," but can include cooperation and teamwork. He cautions that since time and effort are limited, DIYers much choose carefully what they're going to work on and do that which is most important for them. His personal priority is to solve parts of the aging question, and he'd obviously like many other DIYers to take up this challenge. "I wanted to make a dent in the suffering and death caused by aging. It seemed like the SENS people were the smartest, most resourceful and best organized among those ambitious enough. Of course, there are also DIYers with no ambitions to save the world, who are content to 'make yogurt glow' in the basement for their own personal satisfaction." The DIYbio community has a high-traffic mailing list, where projects are discussed, designs shared, and questions asked or answered. The community has worked on dozens of DIY designs: gel electrophoresis techniques, PCR machines, alternative dyes and gels, light microscopes, and DNA extraction techniques. All of them focus on enabling cheap and effective science. The most popular conception of wetware is the genome — the language of life, the ultimate hackable code. Genetic engineering and (more recently) synthetic biology are the hallmarks of this effort. Synthetic biology takes genetic engineering and builds it into a scalable engineering framework. It is the synthesis of complex, biologically-based (or inspired) systems that display functions that do not exist in nature. In synthetic biology, genetic code is abstracted into chunks, colloquially known as biological "parts." These parts allow us to build increasingly complex systems: putting several parts together creates a "device" that is regulated by start codons, stop codons, restriction sites, and similar coding regions known as "features." (visit MIT's Standard Registry of Biological Parts for more detailed information, and tutorials on how to make your own biological part.) These parts are primarily designed by undergraduates competing in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, the largest student synthetic biology symposium. At the beginning of the summer, student teams are given a kit of biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Working at their own schools over the summer, they use these parts, and new parts of their own design, to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Randy Rettberg, director of the iGEM competition, says that iGEM is addressing the question: "Can simple biological systems be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells? Or is biology just too complicated to be engineered in this way?" The broader goals of iGEM include enabling the systematic engineering of biology, promoting the open and transparent development of tools for engineering biology, and helping to construct a society that can productively apply biological technology. If this sounds suspiciously like a front for DIYbio, that's probably because it is. In addition to attracting the brightest young minds to the critical field of molecular biology, many of the founders of iGEM, including Drew Endy at Stanford, Tom Knight at MIT, and DIYbio-rep Mac Cowell are heavily involved in or supportive of the DIYbio community. The recent introduction of iGEM teams unaffiliated with universities ("DIYgem") is a step towards an inclusive community, allowing anyone with the brain and the drive to participate at the level of academics. Mainstream science is increasingly friendly to DIYbio. DIYbiologist Jason Bobe works on George Church's Personal Genome Project (PGP), which shares and supports DIYbio's drive to make human genome data available for anyone to use. haRDWaRe WeTWaRe Stem cell extraction and manipulation, DIy prosthetics, DIy neural prosthetics, sensory enhancements, immune system testing, general tweaking of whatever system strikes the hobbyist's fancy.

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