I’ve always been amazed by manufacturing. A Ford automobile factory in Kansas, one of the biggest in the world, makes a car every minute. That’s 1,440 cars every day. But factories come in all shapes and sizes; they can even be microscopic.
A single bacterium can be turned into a factory that makes proteins, the building blocks that make all living things work.
A single bacterial factory can make 500 to 600 proteins every second (43 million each day), all the while dividing about every half hour to generate over 200 trillion identical factories in 24 hours, each one ready to make another 200 trillion tomorrow. Given enough space and food, one engineered bacterium will generate a limitless number of proteins.
Who wouldn’t get excited about the possibilities of biotechnology?
Last July, Genotyp (speakscience.org) was in Dearborn, Mich., at the Henry Ford Museum for Maker Faire Detroit, 2011. We brought along some genetically engineered bacterial factories happily generating a protein from jellyfish that gives off a green glow whenever it’s hit with UV light. One question kept popping up from our fellow makers: “When can I do that?”
You can start doing genetic engineering now! A few hundred dollars will get you all the reagents you need: with some baths of hot water you can perform polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and some simple chemicals will allow you to do bacterial transformation, all the techniques required to do cloning. The difficulty with amateur biology isn’t the availability of tools; the hard part is learning how to design and perform biotech experiments.
Imagine yourself dropped into a state-of-the-art university lab. You’ve got a million dollars of machines and biotech tools at your disposal. Anything you come up with is possible in this kind of environment, but where do you begin? To start your project, you’re going to need a good grasp of the biotech workflow.
Being able to make a step-by-step plan for accomplishing a project is critical in any discipline. Before discovering the MAKE community, I had no idea how to make a working circuit or program basic computer instructions. To learn these skills, I started with very simple tutorials: wiring up a circuit to blink an LED and writing a program that would happily chirp “Hello, World!” on my computer screen.
These baby steps familiarized me with the workflow of putting together circuits and
writing code. There were good online instructions because thousands had done the exact same thing before me. After completing the tutorials, I knew what tools I’d be working with and how to access them. Then I could start thinking about my own projects within the scope of a technological workflow.
Right now, in order to learn biotech, you have to become an apprentice. That means working in a lab, most likely at a research university. The apprentice model is wonderful for achieving mastery in a discipline, but lacks scalability. Since anyone who wants to learn has to find a college professor to teach them, very few people learn biotech. Compare that to a one-dollar LED kit or a free, downloadable programming tutorial. It’s no wonder we have a lot more programmers and engineers than we do biotechnologists.
Genotyp was founded to help with this problem. We wanted to make getting started with biotech fun and easy, so we created “Cloning a Fluorescent Gene.” We distilled the biotech workflow to its minimum components while still providing a clear picture of genetic engineering from start to finish. It’s a great tool to teach biotech to high school students. Other efforts, like the BioBrick foundation and the iGEM competition are encouraging students to use biotech to create machines out of living cells. Resources and technologies to make biotech accessible to beginners and amateurs are slowly taking shape, making it easier to speak the language of science.
Making with Biotech
Understanding how life uses DNA and protein to create complex machines is an incredible challenge. Our genomes contain over four billion DNA letters, a language that we don’t speak or understand completely. To figure
out the language of life, we have to study DNA in pieces, taking out a little bit at a time and figuring out what each piece does in the whole system. This task is like being handed a hard drive filled with billions of 1s and 0s and having to figure out how binary code makes all the parts of an operating system.
Progress may be slow, but in the last 20 years, biotech has started showing some incredible results. Scientists have created new tools to study and modify DNA so that even middle school students can clone genes. We know almost all the genes in the human genome and even have pretty good ideas of what a lot of them do. We know even more about the genomes of simpler organisms like yeast and bacteria.
Maybe in a few years, next to the Ford plant, there will be another factory, one that employs trillions of microscopic workers given very detailed DNA instructions. Using only compost for food, they’ll work day and night to generate a sustainable source of gasoline needed to run the new Fords next door.