The Biologist, June 2014 //
Tom Ireland explores the world of ‘DIY biology’ – where interested amateurs are conducting surprisingly complex experiments, including genetic engineering.
The scientists behind the big genetics breakthroughs of the last century couldn’t have imagined that, by 2014, extracting, sequencing and modifying DNA would be simple and cheap enough to try at home. However, as techniques such as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) become less expensive, faster and more refined, a growing number of DIY biologists and amateur labs are conducting increasingly sophisticated experiments, many involving DNA profiling and even basic genetic engineering.
The movement is taking genetics out of research labs and into the hands of the public, from evening classes spent extracting strawberry DNA with rum (and drinking the spare reagents as cocktails) to so-called ‘biohackers’ making GM microorganisms in homemade labs. There is even an artist who uses DNA from discarded hair, chewing gum and cigarette butts to make reconstructions of what the samples’ owners look like.