A View from Kenrick Vezina
Now You Can Genetically Engineer Living Cells with a Home Kit. Should You?
A new kit called Amino promises home-brew bioengineering for less than the price of a MacBook.
Amino, a complete starter kit for folks who want to get in on the bioengineering game, starts at $700 (significantly less than the price of a new MacBook Pro) and includes everything you’ll need to “bend DNA to your will,” according to Liz Stinson at Wired.
This includes “the main bacterial culture, DNA, pipettes, incubators, agar plates and various sensors for monitoring the growth and health of your culture. All of this is built into a color-coded, design-centric plywood dashboard.”
The Amino kit comes with instructions on how to do futuristic projects like genetically engineer E. coli bacteria that glow. Each project is packaged as an “app,” with more apps (brewing beer, for instance) to be added over time.
Perhaps the best existing analog to Amino is the popular open-source electronic engineering kits made by DIY pioneer Arduino. “Only instead of playing with wires, circuit boards, and programming languages,” Stinson writes, “it’s bacteria, DNA, and incubators.”
It’s also, of course, a living system. Even if bacteria aren’t held to the same cultural and ethical standards as, say, puppies, they’re very much living things. A world where everyone can build their own electronic devices seems like an unalloyed good, a proper democratization of science and engineering. But a world where everyone can muddle about in bacterial DNA?
Biotechnology, especially genetic engineering, gives society the collective heebie-jeebies. This isn’t entirely unjustified. Living things, unlike electronics, have their own directives beyond those supplied by engineers.
Assuming Amino or something similar manages to get a foothold, even if only among the relatively well-to-do, how might it change the cultural reaction toward biotechnology?
This is the real reason for Amino to exist, gee-whiz factor notwithstanding, and it’s something its creator—MIT Media Lab grad student Julie Legault—has had in mind from the start. From Stinson’s article:
“I thought it was really important to be able to understand it beyond the fear mongering that’s currently the most viewed opinion on it,” [Legault] says. The trick is getting people to not just read about synthetic biology, but make something with it. “The hands-on part makes it less scary,” she says.
Few mediums cultivate fear as effectively as ignorance, and right now all forms of biotechnology might as well be science fiction to the average person. Even in situations where people are embracing the fruits of biotechnology, such as personalized genotyping to assess ancestry, they don’t actually see the process or participate in any meaningful way. It’s all lab coats and jargon.
In the same way that mixing baking soda and vinegar suddenly makes chemistry dramatically, frothingly real, Amino has the potential to bring biotech out of the abstract. Even as a zoology student less than a decade ago, my exposure to practical genetic science (simple DNA analysis) was confined to a cramped lab with arcane machinery. Bringing biotech to people’s desktops is bound to have a normalizing effect on the use of bioengineering, although to what extent I can’t say.
I know this much: I want one.