Ideas

Ideas | Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Do-it-yourself DNA? Go right ahead

Beer DeCoded used Bento Lab, a portable DNA analysis kit, to map beer genomes. Both companies were funded on Kickstarter.
YouTube/BentoLab
Beer DeCoded used Bento Lab, a portable DNA analysis kit, to map beer genomes. Both companies were funded on Kickstarter.

Biotechnologist Gianpaolo Rando just wanted to sequence the DNA of grog — to make, he said, a “genetic tree of beer.”

Within beer’s four basic ingredients — yeast, grains, hops, and water — there is practically infinite variation. “The challenge was: Can I look at the DNA that remains in the beer, that would come from the different hops, the different yeasts? Can I use the techniques I was using in the lab to classify different beers. . . to create a genetic tree of beers? For fun,” he said.

But his lab at the University of Geneva in Switzerland wasn’t interested in beer. So Rando turned to public biology labs that had the kind of equipment he needed. “I was curious to see whether I could do the same things I was doing in the lab but without the lab,” he said.

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What he found, through Lausanne-based community biolab Hackuarium, was the opportunity to test something completely new — a portable DNA lab. The size of a laptop but thicker, Bento Lab contains the four pieces of gear necessary for DNA analysis: a centrifuge, PCR thermocycler (a device that amplifies of segments of DNA), gel electrophoresis (which separates molecules), and a power supply. The kit — named “bento,” after the Japanese lunchboxes — allows the user to extract, copy, and visualize DNA.

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Rando placed “Beer DeCoded” on Kickstarter in 2015 and drew enough backers — and $12,700 — to sequence (and drink) 39 different brews.

Using the world’s first portable DNA lab to sequence beer is a cool thing to do. A lot of people like beer, and getting to know it better is inherently appealing. But the ability to sequence DNA in your living room has staggering implications for the planet and humanity’s place on it.

Right now, molecular biology is in the middle of a popular renaissance. The cost of DNA analysis is steadily declining, while techniques are improving. There’s a massive global consumer genetic testing market — everything from ancestry to bespoke diets and customized cosmetics — now pushing past $340 million. It’s creating new areas of study and use, such as the ever-growing bank of DNA “barcodes,” the short genetic sequences unique to individual species and organisms that are helping to ferret out fraudulent fish and identify the presence of harmful bacteria in food supply chains.

While much of this is happening in funded labs — businesses, academia, governments — it’s also created an opening for the DIY biologist. Community biolabs are popping up across the globe. Genspace is a Brooklyn biolab that offers afternoon BYOS (“bring your own sample”) DNA barcoding workshops and “PCR + Pizza” nights, while BioCurious (get it?) in Santa Clara, Calif., hosts corporate retreats and workshops. At BosLab in Somerville, citizen-scientist members are analyzing the DNA of truffles and talking microbes over beer nights.

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Bento Lab is of a piece with this democratization. “We wanted it to be something that somebody who maybe is curious about the subject but doesn’t have the formal training and might otherwise be a bit scared off feels, ‘Oh, this is friendly, this is for me,’” explained Philipp Boeing, co-founder of Bento Bioworks, the start-up behind Bento Lab. Bento pre-sold 400 labs at nearly $1,300, about one-tenth of the cost of a traditional lab set-up, and they’re delivering the devices next month.

The hobby sets aren’t cheap, but they represent a cracking open of a once-cloistered field of knowledge. There is a precedent for this. Portable chemistry sets were first developed at the end of the 18th century, used by amateur scientists and professionals alike; the version aimed at budding young chemists took off in the early 1900s. By the 1960s, however, safety concerns — sodium cyanide is, after all, a deadly poison, and radioactive uranium ore is, well, radioactive — prompted a crackdown that pushed all but the most mundane chemistry sets off toy shelves by the 1980s.

However perilous at-home chemical reactions are, genetics feels different, more personal. Chemistry sets could build bombs. Tinkering with DNA could change evolution — couldn’t it?

Robert Green doesn’t think that molecular biology ought to be kept in an ivory tower, however, he has concerns about the implications of unrestricted biotech access. “In making these techniques easier, more available, more off-the-shelf, we have opened up the possibility for a huge variety of scientists, including citizen scientists. We have offered these tools to them for better or worse,” acknowledged Green, who is the director of the Genomes2People project, a joint gene sequencing effort by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Broad Institute, and Harvard Medical School. Green likened Bento Lab and the DIY-bio movement, albeit in a lesser way, to bomb-making instructions on the Internet. “The question is how you manage such risks,” he said. “Do you believe they need to be managed? I think yes, there will need to be some regulation of biological tools, just as there are regulations around explosive tools or nuclear tools.” At the moment, regulations around sharing and storing genetic information and ethics of gene protocols are still being tested. “Biotechnology in general,” said Green, “is going to be a real Wild West for some time.”

George Church, Harvard’s prominent genetic biologist, agrees that there is reason to be worried about this kind of equipment made public. “But there is also danger in operating a computer without licensing or operating a car without licensing. There are all kinds of nasty things you can do with cars and computers, accidentally or on purpose,” he said. “All of these kinds of things should be monitored.”

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The potential misuses of genetic material and information are manifold. For example, as Green first suggested in an interview with Motherboard, say you’re in the middle of a custody battle and your ex-spouse has your DNA tested to reveal a genetic marker for depression or mental illness. Would that change the outcome of the custody agreement? Of course, DNA testing is just a few hundred dollars and a mail order kit away — but having the ability to sequence and potentially manipulate DNA with a portable lab invites other worrying prospects. Not the least of those is simply misunderstanding the results.

What can be achieved with Bento Lab is largely limited by the user’s imagination and ability. But a motivated person could certainly use it to do gene editing, and that way both glory and dystopia lies — designer babies, animal and plant mutations, genetically engineered superbugs.

Is a biological weapon a real possibility? “It’s totally feasible,” said Church. “It’s really knowhow that you need, rather than devices — you could go into any farm and find anthrax, you could use the device to find out what it is. The rest of it is just ordinary microbiology.”

So that’s a good thing, right? It’s only as good or as bad as its user? Maybe, but we’d be naive not to consider the risks.

Boeing and fellow co-founder Bethan Wolfenden have thought quite a bit about safety. Bento Lab complies with European consumer electronics standards, and its $200 starter kit, containing the necessary materials for 10 small projects, uses only nontoxic reagents and primers. This is also a way to control how the device is being used. If, for example, you want to test for the genetic markers of Alzheimer’s, you’d need the right reagents. These can be difficult to get outside of an established laboratory setting, although companies like The Odin are making it a lot easier for the citizen scientist to buy certain plasmids and reagents. Bento is limiting the selection in their starter, Wolfenden explained, restricting it to nonmedical traits “or the wildlife and ecological area.”

And it is really difficult to get up to no good with genetics and DNA. “If someone wants to harm people they can do that very easily with a van, they don’t need to invest 10 years into developing something that is going to be very difficult to get to work,” said Wolfenden. “When we get asked what are the possible outcomes — well, let’s look at each of those scenarios and look at someone’s motivation and evaluate whether this is the best method of them achieving what they’re motivated to do. And in a lot of those scenarios, it just falls flat.” Equally, a culture of biological literacy is also its own defense — a good person with a background in DNA analysis can at least spot a bad person using one.

There is room for concern, but many people think those dangers are probably worth the risk. “I think there is a certain degree of human decency and common sense that will hopefully prevail for the most part,” said Green. “We’ve have scalpels available for a long time, but we tend not to have citizen surgeons operating on themselves or other people or even animals. . . The tools of a lot of different things are available, and they have settled in a way that (doesn’t) seem to grossly abuse them.”

But calling a home DNA lab a “tool” understates just how ground-breaking it actually is. Bento Lab was recently shortlisted for the Index award, a significant honor in the design industry. In the write-up, the evaluators described Bento Lab as “empowering for beginners,” noting that “when technologies become democratized, innovation accelerates.” Church described Bento Lab as “an Apple II moment.” The Apple II, among the first personal computers made for the masses, changed computing in ways that are so fundamental that we can hardly appreciate them. “There were computers before the Apple I or the Apple II, cheap computers, but they were really geeky, they had wires hanging out of them. They didn’t have the right form factor or ease of use,” he explained. “This, I think, is that moment.”

That’s huge. Bento Lab has the potential to create scientists where there were once just curious minds. That’s especially useful now, as the ethical, regulatory, and practical concerns raised by new biotech become increasingly pertinent to our everyday lives, from the food we eat to the medicine we need. “Biotech is the technology of the future,” said Dan Grushkin, co-founder and executive director of GenSpace, the community biolab in Brooklyn that opens its doors for “PCR + Pizza” nights. “We’re at a point where we have to make very important policy decisions about how we use that technology. . . For us as a society to have a really meaningful conversation about what we want from this technology, we have to understand it.”

There is also inherent value in making sure that science doesn’t remain siloed in academia. “In an era where people are being fast and loose with facts . . . this is a way to tell the truth for yourself,” said Church. “If people think that it’s hard to verify facts, they will accept whatever facts are convenient for them.” Fundamental science — facts, the basic pursuit for truth — is under fire. Enabling people to perform their own science demystifies not just DNA, but also the search for truth itself.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.