In a house in rural North Carolina, a rectangular fold-out table is scattered with decades-old lab equipment including a centrifuge, a PCR machine (used to copy DNA), and a gel electrophoresis box that's used for measuring DNA. Animal Collective plays on the computer speakers. In his computer chair, 19-year-old Avery Ashley rolls from his desk to his makeshift lab bench. He's making agar plates to cultivate Escherichia coli—gut bacteria.
Ashley hopes to grow his first batch of glowing bugs, so he can one day bioengineer yeast cells into inexpensive, nutritional and tasty foods. But between the cost of lab equipment and reagents, doing biotechnology experiments isn't cheap. To gain the supplies he needs, Ashley is offering to trade coffee beans he roasts at home for the long list of equipment and materials he needs for his biotechnology experiments.
In February, on the DIY biotech forum, Ashley posted, "This is a shot in the dark, but does anyone happen to love coffee and order lab reagents?"
Out of nine people contributing to the thread, three people have made serious inquiries. "Everyone loves coffee so maybe someone would find that a fair deal," he says, "I figured I would give it a go."
At 16, long before he fell in love with molecular biology, Ashley had a fling with coffee, and began importing small shipments of green, unroasted coffee beans from all over the world. He roasted them at home and sold them to friends for a small profit. Now an inspired geneticist, Ashley has created a biotech lab in a spare room in the corner of his house in rural North Carolina.
Only in his second semester at Southeastern Community College, Avery intends to major in genetics.
"I just thought that it would be cool to be able to do this stuff at home, and that thought led me to do some Google searches which led to the realization that I could."
Ashley found support at the DIY biotech forum online, where he advertised his trade. Ashley will trade $6 worth of coffee for $10 worth of lab equipment. "I can roast as much or as little as you like," he says, "Every pound would be roasted to order the day of shipment."
So far, no deals have gone through. But, Ashley remains optimistic. "I'm not sure if this is viable for anyone," he says, "but why not ask, right?"
"I certainly don't want it to seem like I'm asking for a handout," Ashley says. "I'm simply offering my services in return for yours."
Nona Griffin reports on DIYbio and bioart. She was most recently a science fellow at the Eugene Lang College of the New School for Liberal Arts. Follow her on Twitter.