Friday, February 17, 2012

DIY Biotech

DIY biology is part of a wider trend in design that's sometimes called maker culture: people are using 3-D printing services or cheap, custom electronic circuits to develop prototypes of gadgets, products, or vehicles. Now that amateurs can put rockets into space, what's to stop them from genetically modifying life forms in the kitchen?

Several DIY biologists have begun making inexpensive equipment so that more people can participate. CoFactor, a California company, now sells a $599 DNA-copying machine called OpenPCR. And via Shapeways, a 3-D printing company, Garvey is selling a plastic test-tube holder he designed. When attached to a drill bit at home, the $50 piece becomes a fast-spinning centrifuge. Near San Francisco, there's now a 2,400-square-foot laboratory called BioCurious, where community members can test their molecular-biology skills.

George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, helped pioneer the DIY movement in biology. One reason he thinks the trend can't be dismissed is that the cost of both synthesizing and decoding DNA molecules is now falling five times faster than the cost of computing power. That makes it "very interesting to watch," he says.

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