DIY Genetic Engineering

We like to stay on top of the trends that will be changing your future and we are very impressed with the DIY movement.  We have written about the DIY drone movement and the DIY 3D printing movement and we know that they have serious potential to change our lives.

But what about DIY Genetic Engineering?

Can you build life in your garage with mail order parts and create your own customized DNA strands?  Well as it turns out you can.  Just head over to LabX and for a couple grand you can buy everything you need to design life forms of your choice.

Although this might sound like a joke it is actually true.

In the first part of this century some genetic engineers had a vision.  They wanted to make genetic engineering as simple as building transistor radio.  You just go to Radio shack and buy the parts you need and go home and put it together.


They saw biology and genetic engineering like computers and software.

Computers use software that is nothing more than lines of code using only zeros  an ones.  DNA uses As, Cs Ts and Gs.  Why can’t DNA be programmed just like computers?

In 2002 a group of these scientists created iGEN, which is the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition.  It was a competition for high school  and undergraduate students.  The goal was for the kids to design genetic LEGOS. Basically they would build simple biological machines that could be interchanged with others.  They called them BioBricks.

The BioBricks the kids create are all well documented and collected in an open source database.  A database where others can mill through the successes of others to create their own BioBricks.   This is what iGEM calls “the Williams-Sonoma catalog of synthetic biology.”

In 2003, the first year of the contest, the challenge was to build a bacteria that glowed fluorescent green, and a few teams were successful.  Fast forward to 2012 and now there are well over 5000 BioBricks submitted by hundreds of teams.   These 5000 LEGO BioBricks range from ones that can kill cells to ones that smell like bananas.

In 2009 the top BioBrick  was awarded to a team from Cambridge University who developed a strain of  E. coli that can turn one of five different colors when it detects certain environmental toxins.  That sounds pretty useful.

In 2010, after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a team built the “Alkanivore…a toolkit for enabling hydrocarbon conversion in an aqueous environment”  or in other words, a bacteria that can eat oil spills.

In 2011 the grand prize was awarded to a team who used Biobricks take a step forward in solving the worlds fuel problems.

In their own words…

The goal of our “Make It: Diesel Production” portion of this summer’s iGEM project is to convert this recently discovered set of enzymes (AAR and ADC) for microbial alkane production into an open and modular platform for iGEM teams to develop into a robust replacement for petrochemical fuels. Our alkane production system is specifically designed to be easily improved upon, and we have started work on improving this open system, both by increasing alkane yields and by changing the product produced. In addition, we have started to move this system into an alternative chassis, yeast.

Maybe this is why Porter Stansberry thinks the price of oil will be below $40 a barrel by next spring.  If we can use bacteria to grow fuel who need OPEC?  This one has the potential to be a serious game changer.

Whether you like it or not, the DIY Genetic Engineering revolution is happening. High School kids are creating new life forms.  Folks like these…

..are designing our future.

Stephen Davies, one of the judges at the iGEM competition compares the excitement surrounding the new field to the invention of the steam-powered engine during the Victorian age.  “Right now,” he says, “synthetic biology feels like it might be able to power everything. People are trying things; kettles are exploding. Everyone’s attempting magic right and left.”


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