Dr. Amy Tuteur is an obstetrician-gynecologist. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College and her medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Tuteur is a former clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School.

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DECEMBER 30, 2008 7:34PM

Step 1: order jellyfish DNA ...

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 In my ongoing quest to bring you the weird and wonderful from the world of science, I came across a new trend: DIY genetic engineering. Yes, friends, you too can make a mutant at home.

The story was reported by AP:

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

The drive to make things fluorescent appears to be a strong motivating factor; hence the need for jellyfish DNA (and squid DNA, too).

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

… 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 is a co-founder of a DIYbio, a collaborative group for homebased genetic engineers, supplying access to specialized lab equipment needed to sustain the bacteria in the experiments.

According to the website:

DIYbio is an organization that aims to help make biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety. This will require mechanisms for amateurs to increase their knowledge and skills, access to a community of experts, the development of a code of ethics, responsible oversight, and leadership on issues that are unique to doing biology outside of traditional professional settings.

As a college biochemistry major, I find the suggested projects both intriguing and tempting. Consider the Bioweathermap:

Ever wonder how the microbial communities living on cross-walk buttons in Boston compare to those in San Francisco, or Manhattan, or the cross-walk nearest your home? We're going to find out and you can get involved.

Meet up at points around the city, swab crosswalk buttons with Q-tips, and bring the samples back to a central location. The samples will be sent for DNA sequencing. A few weeks later, receive analysis results and learn about the microbes that were living on the crosswalk button they swabbed. The data will be published on a map, so results for different crosswalk buttons can be compared.

The more mechanically inclined might want to build high tech equipment at home. Cowell built her own gel electrophoresis set up (critical for separating different bits of DNA) using the website’s instructions, described as “cutting edge, open-source, & cheap.” The less adventurous can start with the DIYbio kit, Gel Box 2.0. Hobbyists with more expertise can build it from schematics. DIYbio is hoping to add new features like like a built in light filter or mount for a digital camera.

Some people are worried about such powerful technology in the hands of amateurs:

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.

There’s also the possibility of terrorists using the technology, but as Cowell points out, "A terrorist doesn't need to go to the DIYbio community. They can just enroll in their local community college."


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This is an interesting post. Do you think that that DIY genetic engineering will ever produce a major development? (I realize that it's only your best guess) Or do you think that this field will mostly come up with interesting but relatively unimportant discoveries?
Roger Fallihee:

"Do you think that that DIY genetic engineering will ever produce a major development?"

It might produce clever things like fluorescent tattoo ink, but I'd be surprised if it produced medical breakthroughs. It seems more likely to create an epidemic than cure one, but who knows?
Lots of Sci-fi disaster stories start out with a lab experiment gone wrong so DIY genetic engineering makes me a bit nervous. However, I am intrigued by the idea of flourescent tattoos.

"Lots of Sci-fi disaster stories start out with a lab experiment gone wrong so DIY genetic engineering makes me a bit nervous. However, I am intrigued by the idea of flourescent tattoos."

It's a shame that Michael Crichton is gone. He could have written a great book starting with DIY genetic engineering.
I'm picturing "home PCR" using three different temperature pots of water and a timer...