Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cloning: a Game for the Whole (Replicated) Family!

Christmas can invoke fond remembrances of favorite toys from childhood, but there was one that had fallen off my radar screen completely until I read this article about Chinese Hamster ovaries.

"I am not a patient person, and being a new faculty member at a brand new university, I did not immediately have the cleanroom facilities I am accustomed to," says Khine, "And desperation is the mother of invention (or something like that). So as I was brainstorming solutions, I remembered my favorite childhood toy and decided to try it in my kitchen one night."
Khine and her team designed complicated patterns in Auto CAD, printed them onto Shrinky Dinks, and then heated the plastic toys in an inexpensive oven. As the sheets became smaller, the lines of print would bulge out. Taller and more pronounced, the miniaturized pattern served as a perfect mould for forming rounded, narrow channels in PDMS -- a clear, synthetic rubber.
In addition to making some simpler devices, Khine and her team emblazoned a Christmas tree design into a piece of PDMS and showed how it can blend different types of food coloring to make a rainbow pattern. Since microfluidic devices are sometimes used for biological research, the young professor also showed that
Chinese Hamster Ovary cells can flow through through the narrow channels.

Yep. Shrinky-Dinks saving the world. Who knew? I just loved these totally useless bits of plastic. Oh, sure, you were supposed to make little jewelry and ornaments and stuff; but I just ended up with, well, stuff. Teeny tiny stuff. Lots and lots of teeny tiny stuff. Why was this so fascinating? I don't really know. Lord knows I never wanted to use an oven for anything edible. But shrunken little horse pictures? You bet.

Once again I am left to lament the fact I was born too soon - had I access to the Internet in Junior High, my life would have had a very different outcome (I'd be in an off-shore federal prison long ago). But to think that I could have achieved world domination with a shrinky dink kit and and easy-bake oven? Sad, just sad, to contemplate that lost potential.

Amateurs are trying genetic engineering at home
By MARCUS WOHLSEN, Associated Press Writer Marcus Wohlsen, Associated Press Writer Thu Dec 25, 6:49 pm ET

SAN FRANCISCO – The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories. Like the UniBomber?

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she said.

So far, no major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody's kitchen or garage. (That we know of...)

But critics of the movement worry that these amateurs could one day unleash an environmental or medical disaster. Paging Michael Crichton, paging...

Defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the garage.

Many of these amateurs may have studied biology in college but have no advanced degrees and are not earning a living in the biotechnology field. Go on...

Some proudly call themselves "biohackers" — innovators who push technological boundaries and put the spread of knowledge before profits.

In Cambridge, Mass., a group called DIYbio is setting up a community lab where the public could use chemicals and lab equipment, including a used freezer, scored for free off Craigslist, that drops to 80 degrees below zero, the temperature needed to keep many kinds of bacteria alive.

Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell, a 24-year-old who majored in biology in college, said amateurs will probably pursue serious work such as new vaccines and super-efficient biofuels, but they might also try, for example, to use squid genes to create tattoos that glow.

Cowell said such unfettered creativity could produce important discoveries.
"We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game," he said.

Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in the 1970s.

She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model. I love entrepreneurship

Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage. Like the idiot that introduced rabbits or cane toads to Australia? Oh, wait, here's one: let's cross European honeybees with African bees... yeah, there's a great idea, and they didn't even need a microscope slide.

"Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal location, there's no safety process in place," he said. Like the ones our government has? Homer Simpson running the nuclear plant isn't far afield

Some also fear that terrorists might attempt do-it-yourself genetic engineering. But Patterson said: "A terrorist doesn't need to go to the DIYbio community. They can just enroll in their local community college." Or flight school

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