Bioengineering is pervasive these days — just look at your medicine, your makeup, or your food — but the science behind it is still pretty inaccessible to tinkerers. Enter Amino: A small bioengineering lab that will walk you through the process of creating everything from glow-in-the-dark cells to an anti-cancer research compound.
Amino was an MIT Media Lab project that has grown into an independent company. It’s now raising funds for its first production run on IndieGoGo (it’s already far past its original funding goal). Starting at $US700, the desktop lab provides the lab tools to cultivate living cells: The main culture, pipettes, and other tools like inactivator to clean the system when you’re done. You also get the many sensors you need to keep living cells, well, living: pH sensors, temperature sensors, and more are all built into the plywood dashboard.
But to actually make cells from DNA, the company provides “apps,” which give you the actual material you need for different projects, the DNA, and the various chemicals and liquids that will feed it. Each “app” comes with instructions that explain every step of the process, while real-time data analysis lets you monitor it from a computer. The first two apps include a “living night light” and an explorer app that includes several DNA projects.
“Right now, only a select few have access to the equipment and knowledge to experiment with biotechnologies,” writes the CEO of Amino, Julie Legault, on Medium. “[I]n the same way that anyone can now experiment with software and electronics, we should be able to experiment with plug-and-play biotechnology.”
Legault was a student at MIT’s Media Lab when she got into biotechnology unexpectedly after attending a workshop where they engineered the smell of bananas from E.coli bacteria. Another workshop, led by Synbiota, the DNA programming company that is now her business partner for Amino, showed participants how to create violacein, the anti-cancer compound that’s one of Amino’s first “apps.”
But maybe you’ve never considered playing bio-god. What’s the point of all this wetware? As the founders point out, even if you don’t have plans to become a hacker-scientist, synthetic biology is poised to become one of the most important and ubiquitous technologies in the modern world — understanding it is going to become important over the next few decades.
“It’s affecting so much of our lives,” Legault writes, “we need to be able to understand it firsthand and get past the fear and anxiety, because understanding biology allows us to interact more thoughtfully and meaningfully with our environments.”