Guide Tools and Machines (Experimenting With Everyday Science)

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I had no clue why. Would it harm my experiment? I had absolutely no idea, so I just waited for the DNA solution to thaw and then squirted it into the bacteria tube. The instructions said to wait 24—48 hours, then check for small white dots of bacteria. If not … well, failure is also part of the scientific process.

I basically just measured, scraped and stirred a bunch of ingredients, occasionally cooling them or heating them up. Ultimately, I had made zero decisions. Of course, I could have designed a custom-made CRISPR experiment—but it would have taken more time, more materials, more money, and a lot more knowledge than I currently had.

I inspected my bacteria 48 hours later. Crossing my fingers, I lifted the lid on the first plate. No white dots. Then the second plate: nothing. My stomach sank with disappointment. Then I gently raised the lid off the third plate, and saw … something. The plate had two faint milky white circles. But then why did one plate have white spots, but not the other plates? Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. Or perhaps I had contaminated the third plate. If only I could show my plates to someone who knew how to interpret them. Like a scientist. Unfortunately, there was no one to ask in my kitchen.

We met at BioCurious, a community laboratory in Sunnyvale where he works most weekends and some evenings. The lab is funded by donations and members—Sosa is one of its several dozen members. At six foot, five inches, Sosa towers over most people.


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He laughs easily, which offsets his height to lend him a gentle, laid-back manner. He is 40 years old, his dark hair flecked with silver. Originally from Sri Lanka, Sosa came to the U. He now has a day job in computer security—but he spends most of his free time at BioCurious.

On a muggy, overcast afternoon, I followed Sosa inside BioCurious. We strolled through a lobby and into a large windowless room. It had big cabinets crammed with bottles of liquid, racks of latex gloves, a giant bio-hood, microwave and fridge. Microscopes, scales, centrifuges and a bunch of other well-worn science equipment lay scattered across lab desks. A calm thrum of buzzing machinery filled the room, and test tubes shook quietly in an incubator nearby. Johan walked around the room, searching for a thermometer.

We decided on a very basic goal: we would use the powerful editing tool to cut DNA he had already extracted from yeast cells. Professional scientists might use such a method as an intermediate step, such as when they need to cut and paste DNA together to make a gene as part of a bigger research project. Sosa and I pulled on latex gloves and carefully pipetted liquids into tubes to make our guide RNA from scratch—we first synthesized DNA strands with a specific sequence we wanted, used that as a template for the RNA, then destroyed the DNA and isolated the guide RNA from our test tube mixture.

Later, we put the RNA in a new test tube, along with the other materials needed to make CRISPR work in this experiment: protein buffer, bovine serum albumin a protein isolated from cows , water. Sosa sucked up the yeast DNA in his pipette.

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Without warning, the plastic needle-nose tip fell off into the tube of DNA. Then he picked up the Cas9 protein. I added it to our test tube. That alone is a big deal. Tiny channels in the gel run from one charged end to the other, and the sliced DNA strands are pulled through them towards the positively charged side. Sosa carried the gel into the bathroom, where we turned off the lights and looked at it under blue light.

I held my breath while I inspected the gel for markings. I left the lab feeling defeated, and headed back to San Francisco. Sosa texted me a few minutes later. Even if we had got all the other parts RNA, proteins, etc. After a quick tour of the lab, I sat down and stared into the microscope at a small, writhing marine creature: Parhyale hawaiensis , commonly called a beach hopper.

At six foot, five inches, Sosa towers over most people.

He laughs easily, which offsets his height to lend him a gentle, laid-back manner. He is 40 years old, his dark hair flecked with silver. Originally from Sri Lanka, Sosa came to the U. He now has a day job in computer security—but he spends most of his free time at BioCurious. On a muggy, overcast afternoon, I followed Sosa inside BioCurious. We strolled through a lobby and into a large windowless room.

Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA

It had big cabinets crammed with bottles of liquid, racks of latex gloves, a giant bio-hood, microwave and fridge. Microscopes, scales, centrifuges and a bunch of other well-worn science equipment lay scattered across lab desks. A calm thrum of buzzing machinery filled the room, and test tubes shook quietly in an incubator nearby. Johan walked around the room, searching for a thermometer. We decided on a very basic goal: we would use the powerful editing tool to cut DNA he had already extracted from yeast cells.

Professional scientists might use such a method as an intermediate step, such as when they need to cut and paste DNA together to make a gene as part of a bigger research project. Sosa and I pulled on latex gloves and carefully pipetted liquids into tubes to make our guide RNA from scratch—we first synthesized DNA strands with a specific sequence we wanted, used that as a template for the RNA, then destroyed the DNA and isolated the guide RNA from our test tube mixture.

Later, we put the RNA in a new test tube, along with the other materials needed to make CRISPR work in this experiment: protein buffer, bovine serum albumin a protein isolated from cows , water. Sosa sucked up the yeast DNA in his pipette.

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Without warning, the plastic needle-nose tip fell off into the tube of DNA. Then he picked up the Cas9 protein. I added it to our test tube. That alone is a big deal. Tiny channels in the gel run from one charged end to the other, and the sliced DNA strands are pulled through them towards the positively charged side. Sosa carried the gel into the bathroom, where we turned off the lights and looked at it under blue light. I held my breath while I inspected the gel for markings. I left the lab feeling defeated, and headed back to San Francisco. Sosa texted me a few minutes later.

Even if we had got all the other parts RNA, proteins, etc. After a quick tour of the lab, I sat down and stared into the microscope at a small, writhing marine creature: Parhyale hawaiensis , commonly called a beach hopper. But under the microscope, this female hopper resembled a giant translucent shrimp with many powerful, kicking legs. Parhyale is the star of this lab. Hox genes are found in all animals, including humans, and they control the development of their body plans.

Among other things, they determine what appendages—such as swimming legs, claws and antennae—grown on which section of the body. His lab has looked at Parhyale for about 20 years now.

Even better, they now have the ability to mutate several genes at once with CRISPR, which means they can now see how genes interact. When the researchers had tried to mutate multiple genes with their old technique, it rarely worked. Though Patel notes that the older RNA technique is still very useful for certain applications. Before that, they had already spent years trying to break a specific Hox gene with their old method, but were never able to do it.

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Just a few weeks later, scientists in Massachusetts reported they had made a significant advance towards pig-to-human organ transplants. The kits are still available for purchase online through The Odin. As for my bigger question—could untrained DIY-ers actually achieve scientific breakthroughs? Dana Carroll, for his part, believes amateurs could make meaningful discoveries.

Yet he notes that the DIY community faces limitations, because amateur scientists likely would lack the necessary resources. Finally, what about the nightmare scenario: Is CRISPR so easy to use that we need to worry about biohackers—either accidentally or intentionally—creating dangerous pathogens? Jarvis told me she knocked out a Hox gene called Abd-B in this one—the embryo will grow jumping legs where it should have swimming legs, and forward walking legs instead of anchor legs.

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At this point, it just looked like an opaque ball of goo to me. I laughed and glanced back under the microscope. A puff of my breath suddenly struck the Parhyale embryo. It danced wildly around the petri dish, like a grain of sand caught in a windstorm. You have free article s left. Already a subscriber? Sign in.