Articles DIY Bio Featured Synbiobeta — 26 November 2013

Sunny Allen was always interested in science, but overwhelming workloads and lack of encouragement led her to study linguistics instead. Five years of waitressing later, she decided to go back to school and start a second degree in biology and programming, which led her into the world of DIY bio. Now she is helping to get a new DIY bio lab started in the Bay area and working on a huge project to make affordable bioreactors available to the public.

“I was part of the algae group at Biocurious and I noticed that I was spending all my time maintaining the algae culture and not getting to the exciting part – doing the synthetic biology. It’s very important to maintain the algae with constant environmental conditions and in the exponential phase of growth. If you can’t standardize the algae you can’t trust your results and your culture is prone to crash. So I decided to start biomonstaaar to make bioreactors cheaper and available to citizen scientists. Once you figure out how something works, you can use cheaper materials to create the same thing – that’s what hacking is all about. For example, ultrasound can be used in synthetic biology to temporarily punch holes in a cell membrane so that the cell can uptake new DNA. These lab sonicators cost thousands of dollars, but someone at Biocurious realized that a $20 sonic jewellery cleaner from Walmart used the same technology.  Now, most of the DNA insertion at Biocurious is successfully performed with the jewellery cleaner.”

While most bioreactors are aimed at huge companies and academia, and cost around $100,000, Sunny aims to create one for less than $1,000. But what will she do with this technology once it’s up and running?

“The most exciting thing for me is algae’s potential in space. I’m really interested in algae as astronaut food. It’s actually an incredible food source – about 50% protein and almost a complete nutritional profile. NASA has done a lot of research into algae species, and you can engineer it to be healthier, resistant to space radiation, to better fit to the nutrient recycling system of the spacecraft. I’d love to do more research on microgravity’s effects on algae. I’d also love to see an international database of algae species built by an open-source DIY bioreactor community and I would love to spearhead that project.”

Sunny is a great example of how DIY labs bring the public in, whether they’re engineers or linguists. “I’ve always been interested in science but no one encouraged me to it, in fact I was actively discouraged. I thought I couldn’t do it and gave up. Since then I’ve been trying to edge back towards the sciences, for example I started as an English major but moved over to linguistics because it was more science based than just studying literature. In the DIY bio community they encourage you to get your feet wet and are very welcoming. It made me realize that I am good enough and I can do this.

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Anat Reichman

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