Simple, Low-Cost Rig Lets the Budding Biohacker Run DNA Gels

We all the know the basic components for building out an electronics lab: breadboards, bench power supply, a selection of components, a multimeter, and maybe an oscilloscope. But what exactly do you need when you’re setting up a biohacking lab?

That’s the question that [Justin] from The Thought Emporium is trying to answer with a series of videos where he does exactly that – build a molecular biology lab from scratch. In the current installment, [Justin] covers the basics of agarose gel electrophoresis, arguably the fundamental skill for aspiring bio-geeks. Electrophoresis is simply using an electric field to separate a population of macromolecules, like nucleic acids and proteins, based on their sizes. [Justin] covers the basics, from building a rig for running agarose gels to pouring the gels to doing the actual separation and documenting the results. Commercial grade gear for the job is priced to squeeze the most money out of a grant as possible, but his stuff is built on the cheap, from dollar-store drawer organizers and other odd bits. It all works, and it saves a ton of money that can be put into the things that make more sense to buy, like fluorescent DNA stain for visualizing the bands; we’re heartened to see that the potent carcinogen ethidium bromide that we used back in the day is no longer used for this.

We’re really intrigued with [Justin]’s bio lab buildout, and it inspires us to do the same here. This and other videos in the series, like his small incubators built on the cheap, will go a long way to helping others get into biohacking.

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Hacked Heating Instruments for the DIY Biology Lab

[Justin] from The Thought Emporium takes on a common molecular biology problem with these homebrew heating instruments for the DIY biology lab.

The action at the molecular biology bench boils down to a few simple tasks: suck stuff, spit stuff, cool stuff, and heat stuff. Pipettes take care of the sucking and spitting, while ice buckets and refrigerators do the cooling. The heating, however, can be problematic; vessels of various sizes need to be accommodated at different, carefully controlled temperatures. It’s not uncommon to see dozens of different incubators, heat blocks, heat plates, and even walk-in environmental chambers in the typical lab, all acquired and maintained at great cost. It’s enough to discourage any would-be biohacker from starting a lab.

[Justin] knew It doesn’t need to be that way, though. So he tackled two common devices:  the incubator and the heating block. The build used as many off-the-shelf components as possible, keeping costs down. The incubator is dead simple: an insulated plastic picnic cooler with a thermostatically controlled reptile heating pad. That proves to be more than serviceable up to 40°, at the high end of what most yeast and bacterial cultures require.

The heat block, used to heat small plastic reaction vessels called Eppendorf tubes, was a little more complicated to construct. Scrap heat sinks yielded aluminum stock, which despite going through a bit of a machinist’s nightmare on the drill press came out surprisingly nice. Heat for the block is provided by a commercial Peltier module and controller; it looks good up to 42°, a common temperature for heat-shocking yeast and tricking them into taking up foreign DNA.

We’re impressed with how cheaply [Justin] was able to throw together these instruments, and we’re looking forward to seeing how he utilizes them. He’s already biohacked himself, so seeing what happens to yeast and bacteria in his DIY lab should be interesting.

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Reverse Engineering a DNA Sequencer

Improvements in methodology have dramatically dropped the cost of DNA sequencing in the last decade. In 2007, it cost around $10 million dollars to sequence a single genome. Today, there are services which will do it for as little as $1,000. That’s not to bad if you just want to examine your own DNA, but prohibitively expensive if you’re looking to experiment with DNA in the home lab. You can buy your own desktop sequencer and cut out the middleman, but they cost in the neighborhood of $50,000. A bit outside of the experimenter’s budget unless you’re Tony Stark.

But thanks to the incredible work of [Alexander Sokolov], the intrepid hacker may one day be able to put a DNA sequencer in their lab for the cost of a decent oscilloscope. The breakthrough came as the result of those two classic hacker pastimes: reverse engineering and dumpster diving. He realized that the heavy lifting in a desktop genome sequencer was being done in a sensor matrix that the manufacturer considers disposable. After finding a source of trashed sensors to experiment with, he was able to figure out not only how to read them, but revitalize them so he could introduce a new sample.

To start with, [Alexander] had to figure out how these “disposable” sensors worked. He knew they were similar in principle to a digital camera’s CCD sensor; but rather than having cells which respond to light, they read changes in pH level. The chip contains 10 million of these pH cells, and each one needs to be read individually hundreds of times to capture the entire DNA sequence.

Enlisting the help of some friends who had experience reverse engineering silicon, and armed with an X-Ray machine and suitable optical microscope, he eventually figured out how the sensor matrix worked electrically. He then designed a board that reads the sensor and dumps the “picture” of the DNA sample to his computer over serial.

Once he could reliably read the sensor, the next phase of the project was finding a way to wash the old sample out so it could be reloaded. [Alexander] tried different methods, and after several wash and read cycles, he nailed down the process of rejuvenating the sensor so its performance essentially matches that of a new one. He’s currently working on the next generation of his reader hardware, and we’re very interested to see where the project goes.

This isn’t the first piece of DIY DNA hardware we’ve seen here at Hackaday, and it certainly won’t be the last. Like it or not, hackers are officially fiddling with genomes.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi: Virus Hunter

It was early 1983 and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris was busy at the centrifuge trying to detect the presence of a retrovirus. The sample in the centrifuge came from an AIDS patient, though the disease wasn’t called AIDS yet.

Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier in 1983
Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier in 1983, Image source: Le Globserver

Just two years earlier in the US, a cluster of young men had been reported as suffering from unusual infections and forms of cancer normally experienced by the very old or by people using drugs designed to suppress the immune system. More cases were reported and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed a task force to monitor the unusual outbreak. In December, the first scientific article about the outbreak was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

By May 1983, researchers Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute had isolated HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, and reported it in the journal Science. Both received the Nobel prize in 2008 for this work and the Nobel prize citation stated:

Never before have science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity.

It’s only fitting then that we take a closer look at one of these modern detectives of science, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, and what led to her discovery.

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Gertrude Elion, DNA Hacker

Some people become scientists because they have an insatiable sense of curiosity. For others, the interest is born of tragedy—they lose a loved one to disease and are driven to find a cure. In the case of Gertrude Elion, both are true. Gertrude was a brilliant and curious student who could have done anything given her aptitude. But when she lost her grandfather to cancer, her path became clear.

As a biochemist and pharmacologist for what is now GlaxoSmithKline, Gertrude and Dr. George Hitchings created many different types of drugs by synthesizing natural nucleic compounds in order to bait pathogens and kill them. Their unorthodox, designer drug method led them to create the first successful anti-cancer drugs and won them a Nobel Prize in 1988.

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Rosalind Franklin Saw DNA First

It’s a standard science trivia question: Who discovered the structure of DNA? With the basic concepts of molecular biology now taught at a fairly detailed level in grade school, and with DNA being so easy to isolate that it makes a good demonstration project for school or home, everyone knows the names of Watson and Crick. But not many people know the story behind one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, or the name of the scientist without whose data Watson and Crick were working blind: Rosalind Franklin.

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Cheap and Easy Magnetic DNA Separation Method Needs Your Help

When you consider that almost every single cell in your body has more than a meter of DNA coiled up inside its nucleus, it seems like it should be pretty easy to get some to study. But with all the other cellular gunk in a crude preparation, DNA can be quite hard to isolate. That’s where this cheap and easy magnetic DNA separation method comes in. If it can be optimized and tested with some help from the citizen science community.

Commercial DNA separation methods generally involve mixing silica beads into crude cell fractions; the DNA preferentially binds to the silica, making it possible to mechanically separate it from the rest of the cellular junk. But rather than using a centrifuge to isolate the DNA, [Justin] from The Thought Emporium figured that magnets might do a better job. It’s not a new idea — biotech companies offer magnetic separation beads commercially, but at too steep a price for [Justin]’s budget. His hack comes from making magnetite particles from common iron compounds like PCB etchant and moss killer, and household ammonia cleaner. The magnetite particles are then coated with sodium silicate solution, also known as waterglass. The silica coating should allow the beads to bind to DNA, with the magnetic core taking care of separation.

[Justin] was in the process of testing his method when he lost access to the needed instruments, so he’s appealing to the larger science community for help optimizing his technique. Based on his track record of success in fields ranging from satellite tracking to graphene production, we’ll bet he’ll nail this one too.

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