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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Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V for DNA

Once upon a time, the aspiring nerdling’s gift of choice was the Gilbert chemistry set. Its tiny vials of reagents, rack of test tubes, and instruction book promised endless intellectual stimulation and the possibility of stink bombs on demand. Now a new genetic engineering lab-in-a-box Kickstarter, with all the tools and materials needed to create your own transgenic organisms, may help the young biohacker’s dreams come true.

The Kickstarter has been wildly successful. The initial goal was $1200AUD was met in a day, and currently stands at almost $6200AUD. Despite that success, color me skeptical on this one. Having done way more than my fair share of gene splicing, there seem to be a few critical gaps in this kit. For example, the list of materials for the full kit includes BL21 competent E. coli as the host strain. Those cells are designed to become porous to extracellular DNA when treated with calcium chloride and provided with a heat shock of 42°C. At a minimum I’d think they’d include a thermometer so you can control the heat shock process. Plenty of other steps also need fairly precise incubations, like the digestion and ligation steps needed to get your gene into the host. And exactly what technique you’d be using to harvest DNA from the animal, plant or fungal cells is unclear; the fact that most of the techniques for doing so require special techniques leads me to believe there’s a lot less here than meets the eye.

To be fair, I’ve been off the lab bench for the better part of two decades, and the state of the art has no doubt advanced in that time. There could very well be techniques I’m not familiar with that make the various steps needed to transform a bacterial culture with foreign DNA trivial. It could also be the case that the techniques I used in the lab were optimized for yield and for precise data, while the GlowGene kit provides the materials to get a “good enough” result. I hope so, because a kit like this could really expand the horizons of hackerdom and start getting the biohacking movement going.

[Thanks, Michael!]