Open-Source Insulin: Biohackers Aiming For Distributed Production

When you’ve got a diabetic in your life, there are few moments in any day that are free from thoughts about insulin. Insulin is literally the first coherent thought I have every morning, when I check my daughter’s blood glucose level while she’s still asleep, and the last thought as I turn out the lights, making sure she has enough in her insulin pump to get through the night. And in between, with the constant need to calculate dosing, adjust levels, add corrections for an unexpected snack, or just looking in the fridge and counting up the number of backup vials we have on hand, insulin is a frequent if often unwanted intruder on my thoughts.

And now, as my daughter gets older and seeks like any teenager to become more independent, new thoughts about insulin have started to crop up. Insulin is expensive, and while we have excellent insurance, that can always change in a heartbeat. But even if it does, the insulin must flow — she has no choice in the matter. And so I thought it would be instructional to take a look at how insulin is made on a commercial scale, in the context of a growing movement of biohackers who are looking to build a more distributed system of insulin production. Their goal is to make insulin affordable, and with a vested interest, I want to know if they’ve got any chance of making that goal a reality.

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Golden Rice’s Appearance On Philippine Store Shelves And The Rise Of Biofortification

After decades in development, the Philippines became the first country on July 21st of this year to formally approve the commercial propagation of so-called golden rice. This is a rice strain that has been genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene in its grains. This is the same compound that has made carrots so famous, and is a significant source of vitamin A.

Getting enough vitamin A is essential for not only children and newborns, but also for pregnant and lactating women. Currently, vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the primary cause of preventable childhood blindness and an important cause of infant mortality. While VAD is hardly the only major form of world-wide malnutrition, biofortification efforts like golden rice stand to dramatically improve the lives of millions of people around the globe by reducing the impact of VAD.

This raises questions of how effective initiatives like golden rice are likely to be, and whether biofortification of staple foods may become more common in the future, including in the US where fortification of foods has already become commonplace. Continue reading “Golden Rice’s Appearance On Philippine Store Shelves And The Rise Of Biofortification”

Genetically Modified Mosquitos: Biohacking For Disease Prevention

Many years ago, I took a summer trip to the Maryland shore with some friends. One of my buddies and I got bored with playing football on the beach, so we decided to take a hike on one of the many trails back into the wooded area behind the dunes. At the trailhead we noticed a prominent sign, warning about the presence of “very aggressive mosquitos” and not to enter without first applying ample insect repellent. We scoffed at the warning as only young idiots could and soldiered on, bare-legged and confident that we’d be fine.

About three minutes into our hike, a small group came pelting down the trail in a panic. “It’s true! Turn back!” they shouted as they flew past us. Undeterred, or at least unwilling to appear that way to each other, we pressed on, only to discover a few minutes later that we were making a substantial blood sacrifice to the next generation of mosquitos on Assateague Island. We couldn’t bear more than a few seconds before turning tail and running back to the beach and jumping into the ocean to get rid of the last few dozen bloodsuckers.

I learned a valuable lesson from that experience, as well as developing a deep and abiding hatred of mosquitos. It turns out I’m in good company — pretty much everyone hates mosquitos, which are not just a nuisance but can be downright dangerous to be around. But if tests with genetically engineered mosquitos currently underway in Florida turn out well, we may be able to finally turn the tide against mosquito-borne diseases, simply by killing all the females before they ever reach adulthood.

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Illuminating The Inner Workings Of A Venus Flytrap

As a carnivorous plant, Venus flytraps have always been a fascinating subject of study. One of their many mysteries is how they differentiate an insect visit from less nutritious stimulants such as a windblown pebble. Now scientists are one step closer to deciphering the underlying mechanism, assisted by a new ability to visualize calcium changes in real time.

Calcium has long been suspected to play an important part in a Venus flytrap’s close/no-close decision process, but scientists couldn’t verify their hypothesis before. Standard chemical tests for calcium would require cutting the plant apart, which would only result in a static snapshot. The software analogy would be killing the process for a memory dump but unable to debug the process at runtime. There were tantalizing hints of a biological calcium-based analog computer at work, but mother nature had no reason to evolve JTAG test points on it.

Lacking in-circuit debug headers, scientists turned to the next best thing: add diagnostic indicator lights. But instead of blinking LEDs, genes were added to produce a protein that glows in the presence of calcium. Once successful, they could work with the engineered plants and get visual feedback. Immediately see calcium levels change and propagate in response to various stimuli over different time periods. Confirming that the trap snaps shut only in response to patterns of stimuli that push calcium levels beyond a threshold.

With these glowing proteins in place, researchers found that calcium explained some of the behavior but was not the whole picture. There’s something else, suspected to be a fast electrical network, that senses prey movement and trigger calcium release. That’ll be something to dig into, but at least we have more experience working with electrical impulses and not just for plants, either.

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Open-Source Biology And Biohacking Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the open-source biology and biohacking Hack Chat!

Justin Atkin‘s name might not ring a bell, but you’ve probably seen his popular YouTube channel The Thought Emporium, devoted to regular doses of open source science. Justin’s interests span a wide range, literally from the heavens above to the microscopic world.

His current interest is to genetically modify yeast to produce spider silk, and to perhaps even use the yeast for brewing beer. He and the Thought Emporium team have been busy building out a complete DIY biology lab to support the effort, and have been conducting a variety of test experiments along the way.

Please join us for this Hack Chat, in which we’ll cover:

  • The how’s and why’s of yeast genetic engineering;
  • What it takes to set up an effective biology lab from scratch;
  • An update on the current status of the spider-silk yeast project; and
  • Where the open-source biology field is, and where it’s going.

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Open-Source Biology and Biohacking Hack Chat event page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 13, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Biohacking Lactose Intolerance

Would you pop a homemade pill containing genetically engineered virus particles just so that you can enjoy a pizza? Not many people would, but then again, if you’ve experienced the violent reaction to lactose that some people have, you just might consider it.

Such was the position that [The Thought Emporium] found himself in at age 16, suddenly violently lactose intolerant and in need of a complete diet overhaul. Tired of scanning food labels for telltale signs of milk products and paying the price for the inevitable mistakes, he embarked on a journey of DIY gene therapy to restore his ability to indulge in comfort foods. The longish video below details a lot of that journey; skip to 15:40 if you want to cut to the chase. But if you’re at all interested in the processes of modern molecular biology, make sure you watch the whole thing. The basic idea here is to create an innocuous virus that carries the lac gene, which encodes the enzyme β-galactosidase, or lactase, and use it to infect the cells of his small intestine. There the gene will hopefully be expressed, supplementing the supply of native enzyme, which in most adult humans is no longer expressed at the levels it was when breast milk was our primary food.

Did it work? We won’t ruin the surprise, but in any case, the video is a fascinating look at mammalian cell transfection and other techniques of genetic engineering that are accessible to the biohacker. Still, it takes some guts to modify your own guts, but bear in mind that this is someone who doesn’t mind inserting magnetic implants in his fingers.

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Genetically Engineered Muscle Cells Power Tiny Bio-Robots

One of the essential problems of bio-robotics is actuators. The rotors, bearings, and electrical elements of the stepper motors and other electromechanical drives we generally turn to for robotics projects are not really happy in living systems. But building actuators the way nature does it — from muscle tissue — opens up a host of applications. That’s where this complete how-to guide on building and controlling muscle-powered machines comes in.

Coming out of the [Rashid Bashir] lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign, the underlying principles are simple, which of course is the key to their power. The technique involves growing rings of muscle tissue in culture using 3D-printed hydrogel as forms. The grown muscle rings are fitted on another 3D-printed structure, this one a skeleton with stiff legs on a flexible backbone. Stretched over the legs like rubber bands, the muscle rings can be made to contract and move the little bots around.

Previous incarnations of this technique relied on cultured rat heart muscle cells, which contract rhythmically of their own accord. That yielded motion but lacked control, so for this go-around, [Bashir] et al used skeletal muscle cells genetically engineered to contract when exposed to light. Illuminating different parts of the muscle ring lets the researchers move the bio-bots anywhere they want. They can also use electric stimulation to control the bio-bots.

The method isn’t quite at the point where home lab biohackers will start churning out armies of bio-bots. But the paper is remarkably detailed in methods and materials, from the CAD files for 3D-printing the forms and bio-bot skeletons to a complete troubleshooting guide. It’s all there, and it could be a game changer for developing the robotic surgeons of the future.

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