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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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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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!]