Gene in a bottle: DIY biotechnology

MEREDITH PATTERSON is not your typical genetic scientist. Her laboratory is based in the dining room of her San Francisco apartment. She uses a plastic salad spinner as a centrifuge and Ziploc plastic bags as airtight containers for her samples. But the genetically modified organism she is attempting to create on a budget of less than $500 could provide a breakthrough in food safety.

The 31-year-old former computer programmer and now biohacker is working on modifying jellyfish genes and adding them to yoghurt to detect the toxic chemical melamine, found in baby milk in China last year after causing deaths and kidney damage to thousands of infants. Her idea is to engineer yoghurt so that in the presence of the toxin it turns fluorescent green. If her experiment succeeds, she will release the design into the public domain.

"I haven't had a huge amount of success so far," says Patterson. "But science is often about failing until you get it right." She has decided to invest in an electroporator she found on eBay for $150, which should speed things up. "It's actually not that hard. It's a bit like making yoghurt. And if there's material left over from the experiment, I can eat it," she says.

Patterson is just one of dozens of citizen scientists setting up their own gene labs in the hope of inventing new and useful organisms. A community is evolving to take advantage of low-cost, off-the-shelf genetic parts and increasing knowledge in biological engineering. International competitions such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine and io9 Mad Science contest have produced innovations in medicine, agriculture and biocomputing.

But Helen Wallace, of GeneWatch in Britain, thinks biohacking could be dangerous. "It is increasingly easy to order genes by mail," she says. "Something like smallpox is hard to get, but there are other organisms that could become harmful. If you change a living organism's properties, you could also change its interactions with the environment or the human body. Scientists are notorious for not seeing the unintended consequences."

Reshma Shetty is part of the team behind Ginkgo Bioworks, a Massachusetts company aiming to make DIY biotechnology a reality. She says: "Nowadays, biotechnology is like a medieval guild. Firstly, you have to get a PhD, but if you want to practise you then need venture capital, otherwise you don't have the tools." Ginkgo aims to make things easier by offering off-the-shelf biological components and a third-party service for rapid prototyping.

Ginkgo has constructed genetically modified organisms that release the odour of bananas, turn red or glow in the dark, and is developing new ones that will all be in the public domain. "In 10 years, all sorts of new stuff will have been done," she says.

Jim Thomas, of the environmental think tank ETC Group, says: "The risk is we have limited knowledge of how these things work. GM crops have outcrossed [bred with non-GM plants] after we were told they wouldn't. GM biofuels have also been shown to damage surrounding food crops. Where is the oversight?"

MacKenzie Cowell is a founding member of Boston's DIYbio, which provides tools and advice to biohackers. In May it will co-ordinate the first "Flash Lab", sending 1000 volunteers to take swabs from pedestrian crossing buttons around Boston. The data will be analysed to produce a map of bacteria in the city.

"We'll pick up all sorts of surprising stuff," says Cowell. "I was sick for three days with symptoms of salmonella last year, before finding out there had been an outbreak in New York where I was staying." This inspired him to start the project, nicknamed "Google Flu" (google.org/flutrends). Benefits may come from increased transparency in science, but sometimes the authorities have difficulty recognising it.

In 2004 an art professor, Steve Kurtz, was arrested as a suspected bioterrorist because Petri dishes with bacteria in them were found at his home in New York, after his wife died of a heart attack.

In Britain, regulations are stricter. Chris French, a lecturer at Edinburgh University and local biological safety officer, says: "There's very little that can be done at a home address … [genetically modified organisms] are strictly regulated by the Health and Safety Executive."

This hasn't stopped British university teams from developing useful biological innovations. One winner of last year's iGEM competition was Bristol University's Bacto-Builders project, using teams of E. coli bacteria to perform surgical tasks that single organisms would find impossible. Its project is a collaboration with the TiGEM genetics laboratory in Italy.

"We are in the nascent stages of some kind of DIY biotechnology network in the UK," says Kim de Mora, a biology PhD student at Edinburgh University. "But … it's going to be hard to set up a garage industry because of the regulations."

De Mora was part of a team that developed an arsenic detector for contaminated water in Bangladesh. E. coli bacteria were modified to produce a warning signal in the presence of arsenic. "The real potential of biotechnology will explode in the UK after people are given access at home," predicts De Mora.

Meanwhile iGEM's global Registry of Standard Biological Parts is doubling its catalogue of organic building blocks every year. Within the next decade, millions of synthetic organisms are sure to be created. The question is: who will be allowed to create them?

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