“Something lights up—well, hello.”
“That’s a 15k resistor. Again, didn’t work.”
“I’m wondering if I’ve misunderstood which pin is which. If I did, that would be stupid.”
“Things that do not make sense include . . .”
“Where the hell are you coming from?”
“Plug us in.”
“Again, we’re not getting squat.”
We both stare at the tiny board one more time.
“We want red to go here and black to go here, and somebody needs to touch this wire to the base. So if you want to just hold these, I can plug it in. First, make sure you are not touching the lead. Good.”
A vicious snapping sound shatters the concentrated silence of the room. Some lights go out, throughout the building. Patterson pulls the plug. “Time for a cigarette break,” she says.
With electroporation out, Patterson explains, we’ll have to resort to the next best way to get a plasmid into a bacterium: an ultrasound bath. This involves the same technology that allows us to peer inside a womb and look at a fetus. “Ultrasound is used in labs normally for lysing cells, for ripping them open and getting out the DNA,” she explains. “And it is also used for sterilization. A really high amplitude of ultrasound can be used to kill off bacteria. When the frequency is in the 40-kilohertz range, you can actually use it for transsection, one of the terms for introducing plasmids into things.” (Having failed at frying the bacteria and then shocking them, we now hoped to yell at them.) The question is, how do you get an ultrasound machine? “This thing ran 40 bucks,” she says—this thing being a “jewelry cleaner operating at 40 kilohertz.” The machine is small and compact, easy to handle. Dozens of them are offered for sale on eBay on any given day.
Even as she presses forward in search of Glo-gurt, though, Patterson tells me her interests have recently shifted to something more functional. She’s started a conversation with an Internet pal on the DIYbio listserve about synthesizing a bacterium that would react in the presence of melamine. Recall that in 2008, this substance began showing up in Chinese imports of milk products, eggs, baby food and pet food and led to numerous deaths of people and animals. Melamine-contaminated milk alone sickened some 50,000 people. The reports caused a food scare and focused attention on the fact that American agencies were not testing for the presence of these lethal chemicals. Patterson and her online research partner call their creation the Melaminometer.
One approach they are considering is to create bacteria that, in the presence of melamine, would break down the substance into ammonia and water. Not all that tasty, but it beats getting sick. Maybe they can make the chemical taste like bananas when they get around to Melaminometer 2.0. Like so many amateurs, Patterson sees in the possibilities of all these plasmids what William Sellers saw in a dependable, well-threaded screw—a better future.
As Patterson and her peers start trying out their ideas and experiments, a public debate will eventually arise: Just what are we permitting here? And the usual anxieties will erupt. Are we unleashing a generation of Dr. Frankensteins? How soon before we hear about the possibility of weaponized flu in some kid’s suburban den? All the more reason, the DIY supporters say, to encourage the local synbio clubs. Members are struggling right now to define the appropriate standards, general ethics and good lab protocol. Of course, if history is any teacher, then an ambitious prosecutor might well swoop into these clubs. On the other hand, if Endy, Keasling and Church can stage-manage synbio’s image well enough, the clubs could flourish and foster novel approaches to genomics. There are always natural concerns when any new set of tools is handed to the next generation. But the way this anxiety gets addressed—as the next 4H club or as the next national security threat—will reveal a lot about how we currently view American innovation.
The elder statesman of theoretical physics and a big synbio fan, Freeman Dyson, wrote an influential essay in the New York Review of Books in 2007 in which he called for precisely the kind of synthetic biology research we are now beginning to see. “Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder,” Dyson wrote. “There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people.
“There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners,” Dyson continued, “who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too. Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.”
It’s not a brave new world that Dyson envisions, but rather the same old mundane one, just gussied up with the middlebrow creations of housewives and teens. And the exquisite dreams of a Meredith Patterson. Maybe that is where we’re headed, but make no mistake about how we will get there. Dyson and his co-enthusiasts want to put the toolbox for life itself into the hands of an amateur designer. Presumably, an intelligent one.
Adapted from Bunch of Amateurs, published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.