What follows is a modified excerpt from Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, out now.
On Fillmore Street in San Francisco, in that stretch that’s still mostly boho coffee joints with a head shop and an art gallery or two, I met Meredith Patterson. She didn’t exactly stand out among the denizens of the Lower Haight. In her 30s and pushing 5ʼ10ʼʼ in her combat boots, she had on a tough-looking leather jacket and cat’s-eye glasses that finished off her look with a nice hint of 1950s girl nerd. Patterson is classic self-invented obsessive. A computer programmer and language theorist by day, she’s somebody who’s loved anything do-it-yourself since she was a little girl, working beside her dad fixing the family car or rewiring the house. Not long ago, she found herself in the grip of a new enthusiasm: homebrew bioengineering.
America has always been a place of ambitious amateurs. And the latest in the long line of them are self-taught biologists like Patterson. These synthetic biologists, so called because they try to engineer new forms of life, are trying to do for the chromosome what Steve Jobs did for the computer. In the bigger cities, they have started to form “synbio” clubs, the same way radio enthusiasts did in the early 1900s or computer programmers did in the 1970s or robotics amateurs did in the ’00s. A few of those clubs have even opened brick-and-mortar labs where members can practice tweaking various genomes as a group.
Ask most people about the amateur spirit, and they’ll say, well, that was then. It’s almost common wisdom that the golden age of the self-invented upstart ended sometime about a generation ago. But the fact is, we’ve been hearing this line for at least a century, and it’s always wrong. The time of outsiders and amateurs and cranks is not a bygone era, but rather a cycle that comes around just when you think it’s over. This cycle is an essential part of America’s history—arguably the country’s genesis story.
Ever since Ben Franklin left Boston for Philadelphia, and continuing right up through when Mark Zuckerberg abandoned Harvard Square for Palo Alto, there has been this sense that a certain kind of creativity happens on the fly, often on the lam, after beginning in one of those proving grounds of American ingenuity: the dorm room, the weekend hobby club, the garage. For Patterson, that proving ground happens to be a tabletop lab situated in the breakfast nook just outside the kitchen of her apartment. She had invited me out to check out her rig—a collection of mostly repurposed and (fairly) common household devices that she uses to fiddle around with the building blocks of life—and to help her with the next step of her latest project. She wanted to insert a plasmid of jellyfish DNA into a bacterium so that later she might cultivate a modified form of yogurt, one that tasted great but also glowed in the dark.
Before we got to any serious bioengineering, Patterson said we’d have to visit one of her go-to synbio supply stores: Trader Joe’s, which sold plain yogurt containing the bacteria we’d need, Lactobacillus acidophilus. During our walk, I noticed a tattoo on her ankle. She pulled her pants up above her boot. “This one’s not done yet,” she said. It was a steampunk biomechanical x-ray of her lower tibia and fibula, a series of mechanical cogs, robotic pistons and bicycle chains. “It’s kind of a joke, because I have these weird mutant ankles,” she explained. “I have this thing called an accessory navicular bone.” Patterson has a number of tattoos, all of which relate in some way to her sense of herself as an off-the-grid scientist. On one arm she has a rose window and sword from her favorite anime serial, “Revolutionary Girl Utena.” Down the bicep is the iconic image of Atlas holding up the heavens, most familiar as the paperback cover art of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. And keeping the burdened Titan company is the Page of Pentacles, the tarot-card figure who, she says, signifies the “eternal student.”
The crucial ingredient for Patterson’s “Glo-gurt” is a gene known as green fluorescent protein, or GFP. Originally found in jellyfish and a species of polyp called the sea pansy, GFP allows these creatures to bioluminesce when disturbed. In 2000, an artist named Eduardo Kac created “GFP Bunny,” a genetically altered albino hare that glowed bright green in the presence of ultraviolet light. Since then, the gene and its colorful relatives have been domesticated—very domesticated. Pet stores now sell GFP-altered zebra fish as GloFish ($7.99 a piece, $6.99 if you buy three—now available in Starfire Red, Electric Green, Sunburst Orange, Cosmic Blue and Galactic Purple). Three scientists who studied the gene won a Nobel Prize in 2008, and GFP is more seriously used as a marker to track all kinds of changes and effects at the genetic level. Patterson’s aim with Glo-gurt is not quite so high. She thought it would be cool, she told me, to go to a rave with glow sticks she could eat.
When we arrived back at her apartment, Patterson showed me a sample of the glow-in-the-dark plasmid that she had obtained; she kept it sealed in a bag in her freezer next to some frozen chicken wings and a box of Eggos. She had ordered it from the Carolina Biological Supply Company in North Carolina the same way someone else might order a sweater. Her basic plan was to grow a batch of the yogurt bacteria, introduce the GFP gene into the cells, and then use that modified bacteria to make yogurt again. To do so, we would need to improvise an electroporation device that could help usher the glow-in-the-dark gene into the Lactobacillus.
Electroporation is a common genetic procedure that involves exposing cells to a 2,500-volt, pulsed electrical field. In bacteria, the charge changes the permeability of the cell membrane, making it possible to pass the GFP plasmid through it. “Essentially,” Patterson said, “we’re going to taser them.”
Patterson does all of her work, high-voltage and otherwise, in her apartment, a place shared by a changing cast of roommates. It’s all very familiar—a friendly wreck of used furniture, piles of books and boxes, coats, beanbag chairs, and a potted glade of houseplants clustered desperately at the windows. Scattered on the table that serves as her lab is her improvised genetic gear. Patterson long ago solved the problem of obtaining lab-quality pipettes (because they can run around $200) by purchasing, from an online pharmacy, cheap disposable insulin needles that can measure down to the microliter. She reengineered a nine-inch floppy-drive motor from a computer she bought used for $5 to serve as a centrifuge for spinning vials of liquid containing bacteria. Her autoclave is a pressure cooker, and her incubator is a tailgater’s fridge from Sharper Image that can cool or warm. “Someone was getting rid of one of these for $30,” she said. “Mine now.”
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