Rewiring the System


Posted in Uncategorized by rewiringangel on January 9, 2009

If you have not heard or read about this thriving bee hive of inventive activity here is the second place winners story. It is like the dawn of the computer age before Microsoft! I remember ages ago at Murry Hill, the ATT research and development center in New Jersey watching the electrodes inserted in the large slugs as they were developing an intersection of the wet and unpredictable biology system with the linear digital system. This produced the reader for the post office to cancel stamps without ink as well as negating the charge on books at your local big footprint book store. Cooking biology in a small closet is very picturesque!
The competition is part of a do-it-yourself movement that hopes to spark a revolution in biotechnology. It is based on the emerging field of synthetic biology, which uses genes and other cell components as the building blocks for new organisms or devices. The movement is trying to open up this field to anyone with a passion for tweaking DNA in their spare time – from biologists to software engineers to people who just like it as a hobby. The hope is that encouraging a wider mix of people to take part could lead to advances that would not happen otherwise, just as tinkering by the Homebrew Computer Club hackers of the 1970s spawned the first personal computers.
“Biology is becoming less of a science and more of a technology,” says Mackenzie Cowell, co-founder of the group DIYbio, which aims to be an “Institution for the Amateur”, providing scientists with resources akin to those found in academia or industry. “There will be more
opportunity for people who didn’t spend up to seven years getting a PhD in the field,” he says.
Meredith Patterson, a software engineer in San Francisco, is one such amateur. She is engineering fluorescent yoghurt by zapping bacteria with a $40 ultrasonic jewellery cleaner she set up in her kitchen. The sound waves create pores in the bacteria’s cell walls which stay open
for long enough for Patterson to insert genes that code for green fluorescent proteins she bought from a biological supply company.

You might say that making glow-in-the-dark yoghurt is an end in itself, but Patterson has a serious goal in mind: to engineer bacteria that light up in the presence of melamine, the industrial chemical recently found in infant formula in China, which injured hundreds of children and killed at least six. At present, the principal test for the toxin is chromatography, an expensive laboratory procedure. “Here is a problem that was difficult to solve by conventional means,” Patterson says. “People should have an inexpensive and portable test to make sure their food is safe, but no lab was working on this, so I said let’s do it ourselves.”
Patterson took up DIY biology as a hobby after doing some
bioinformatics work for a biotech company. “Biology is an interesting puzzle. I learned the informatics tools to solve those puzzles, now I’m interested in taking that to the next level and producing novel organisms to solve problems,” she says. It’s not hard to get in on the act either. Patterson uses resources such as for research, and found the best growth medium for yoghurt bacteria in a 1950s edition of a dairy science journal. “Knowing how to do research helps, but the barrier for entry is pretty low,” she says. DIYbio, which so far has around 20 active participants, held its first meeting in Cambridge, MA, in May 2008. Amateurs were invited to extract DNA for analysis from apples, oatmeal and their own saliva, and learned how to make gel boxes and dyes – essential tools for genetic fingerprinting.
This Year there were 84 partoicipants from all over the world! Onward and upward!


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