When I think of an amateur biologist, I imagine a bird watcher. Or perhaps someone investigating a stream or counting fish. What I don’t think of is people tinkering with life in their garages. And yet some folks are doing just that.

The AP ran a story the other day about people working with DNA in their garages (or apartments). For example, a woman in San Francisco is trying to engineer yogurt bacteria that will glow green in the presence of melamine. This is the chemical that was found in baby formula and pet food from China.

The idea would be that you (or some governmental agency) could check your yogurt with a UV light before you ate it. If it glowed green, then the yogurt was contaminated with melamine.

These glowing bacteria could help a lot of people avoid melamine poisoning (as long as people could get past the fact that they’d be eating a GMO!). But do we really want people doing this kind of biology at home?

Of course this sort of thing would be very difficult to stop. People can go to science fair project sites and get all the information they need to jury rig a lot of the equipment to do these kinds of experiments. They can also search the web or take a class at their local community college and learn most everything they need to know.

In fact, the technology to do this kind of stuff is so straightforward that we do something similar here at The Tech. We let visitors put a gene in bacteria that causes the bacteria to glow green only in the presence of a special sugar called arabinose.

So unless we put up massive resources to shut down these labs (a “War on Amateur Labs”), people are going to be able to do this stuff if they want to. To me, the two big questions are:

Odds are that nothing too useful will come out of these labs. Sure the melamine bacterium could be useful (it is actually very similar to the outlawed glowing goldfish designed to detect pollutants in the water). But it would be very hard to bring to market. Two potential problems are getting people to eat a GMO and proving to the FDA that it is safe.

One good thing that might come out of this sort of thing is to make biology more accessible and maybe more exciting too. People might think of and do projects for fun that, as a necessary part of accomplishing their goal, will increase their understanding of molecular biology. In other words, they might be more willing to learn this stuff for something fun they thought of.

I can imagine some dangers too. What if someone decides to come up with an anthrax vaccine and makes a dangerous bug that gets loose? Or who knows what else?

There probably isn’t a big risk in something like this happening but biology is different than coming up with a new computer program or light bulb in your garage. Biology uses live things that can make copies of themselves and spread pretty far pretty quickly. Traditional labs have controls in place to keep these sorts of things from happening. These unregulated labs may or may not be that careful.

A group in Boston that promotes do-it-yourself biology:

http://diybio.org/

How to make some molecular biology lab equipment at home http://www.scq.ubc.ca/the-macgyver-project-genomic-dna-extraction-and-gel-electrophoresis-experiments-using-everyday-materials/

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Amateur Molecular Biologists 21 January,2009Dr. Barry Starr

Author

Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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