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Mad scientists, start drooling

The future is arriving fast. Here are the instructions for assembling a $500 home molecular biology laboratory — you can do it! And it’s getting cheaper all the time!

The widespread and increasing availability of second-hand professional laboratory equipment or inexpensive new commercial surrogates means that it is now unchallenging to set up a fully functional molecular laboratory for less than $500 in equipment costs. Coupled with the presence of sources for all reagents and supplies needed in formats that are safe for general use, the work presented here demonstrates that capacity to set up functional molecular biology teaching modules is well within the reach of even the smallest educational facilities. When coupled with outsourced PCR product Sanger sequencing available from commercial sources at prices approaching $5/reaction, the capacity of such “home labs” to start undertaking research of real potential scientific value—such as surveys of microbial biota in unusual environments—at negligible costs should not be underestimated. Similarly, the potential for setting up labs of this type for medical applications in emerging countries may be worth considering. While current best methods have moved to real-time and array-based high throughput, contamination resistant methods, the methods demonstrated here were “state of the art” for clinical and research molecular diagnostics in the Western world only some 15 years ago.

Hmmm. The kids have flown, I’ve got more space than we know what to do with…maybe this summer I should tinker with setting up something like this.

(Also on Sb)

Comments

  1. Khantron, the alien that only loves says

    Now every high school can be like my high school. Well except for having to use mineral oil in the PCR machine.

  2. Nutmeg says

    Hmm…my place is quieter and probably has a lower risk of sample contamination than the lab. If I wasn’t a starving grad student with no spare money, this would sound pretty good.

  3. miles670 says

    Pure awesome. I’mma build my own lab next year for sure, though the urge to cook crystal could overcome me in the privacy of my own basement…

  4. Draken says

    If it has any potency, perceived or real, of enabling production of ABC weapons, it’ll be outlawed before you can click the order button on Ebay.

  5. shouldbeworking says

    Can I be the first to place an order for a custom crocaduck? Blue with yellow stripes please. The cats are in for a surprise…

  6. says

    Reminds me of the exciting 70’s when computers moved into the home. And look where home computers have taken us. How long before you do PCR in your cellphone? Have fun!

  7. shouldbeworking says

    Oh, and I’m not mad. I’m always in a good mood, but I hide it better soe days!

  8. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The advantage of being a mad social scientist is I don’t have to get any special equipment.

  9. Putting On The Foil says

    The down side of the availability of so much perfectly good lab equipment being available for pennies on the dollar is that there are also many perfectly good scientists and research associates etc. also available for pennies on the dollar.

  10. Putting On The Foil says

    Tis: how is that an advantage??? At least go out and get a machine that goes “Ping!”

  11. Father Ogvorbis, OM says

    Hmmm. The kids have flown, I’ve got more space than we know what to do with…maybe this summer I should tinker with setting up something like this.

    Does this mean that the octopi photos are going to start getting really, really, really weird?

  12. kantalope says

    Think that the Discovery Institute peoples will take some money out of their millions to set up a lab and do some research? —nah, me neither.

  13. epikt says

    Hmmm. The kids have flown, I’ve got more space than we know what to do with…maybe this summer I should tinker with setting up something like this.

    Get the lab. Use it to make more kids.

  14. Father Ogvorbis, OM says

    Get the lab. Use it to make more kids.

    Making them is far more fun the oldfashioned way.

    Honestly! Kids these days.

  15. says

    kantalopesaid:

    Think that the Discovery Institute peoples will take some money out of their millions to set up a lab and do some research? —nah, me neither.

    Apparently we think alike as this was my first thought after “Awesome, I am totally going to do this”

    They have no excuse for not producing research. This just goes to show how much you can do with a very small amount of money. With the money they have so much more could have been done.

  16. says

    If I wasn’t in a starving grad student phase, I could consider it. It definitely sounds like a good idea for schools to set up, though somehow I suspect $500 would be quickly swallowed up to buy spare footballs and pompoms.

    Anyway, if anyone’s interested, I think I’ve got a pet idea for you to splice together: Elephant and potbellied pig so that we can have mini-elephants indoors.

  17. says

    Nowadays, a top-of-the-line chemistry set for children can cost you over $200:

    http://tinyurl.com/73l5k8g

    So why not spent a few hundred dollars more and give your children a full molecular biology lab?

    They can create bioweapons to deal with school bullies, and all kinds of other Science Fair projects.

  18. says

    Two words…. “Homeland Security”

    There is another funny one with that. There is a recent article some place on “macro” entanglement. Not real easy to do, but apparently, its possible, in some cases, to do it. They recently got two diamonds to vibrate in sync, then used them to “transmit” results, using quantum entanglement. Its still not at all practical, or useful, but I can just imagine someone cracking this for communications, and the government slapping some new law in place, right at the same time, to “control the internet”. With a lot of networks going wifi, and something like this, for distant communications, one could produce a network that is a) wireless, and b) with no way to trace the other end of the data link. All one could do is destroy the equipment, thus breaking the link. Its likely you couldn’t even detect it being used, unlike radio. Swat one “illegal network”, and as long as someone got away with the quantum modem, they could just set up another some place else. So, short of making wireless itself illegal…

    This stuff has got to scare the shit out of all the authoricrats, even more than the stupidly idiotic possibility that some kid might unleash mutant something or other, out of a $500 lab.

  19. says

    Suddenly I can’t help wondering if I’m only one lab accident away from becoming a super villain.

    Probably not. For a mathematician, a “lab accident” is mostly just a paper cut.

  20. Compuholic says

    Nice, unfortunately close to useless for non-biologists, like me. They should also include a list of books for home study.

  21. says

    This is so AWESOME!
    I’ve dreamt about having a private lab, but I always figured it would cost me a billion. Now I know what to put on my christmas list.

  22. Naked Bunny with a Whip says

    Think that the Discovery Institute peoples will take some money out of their millions to set up a lab

    Sure! They’ll set it up with plenty of scientific equipment, like Jacob’s ladders, Tesla globes, bubbling beakers of fluorescent liquid, constantly running oscilloscopes, computers with reel-to-reel tapes, and, of course, one of these.

    and do some research?

    Look, if thought experiments were good enough for Einstein, they’re good enough for you! You probably don’t even have a degree in Science.

  23. radpumpkin says

    The sad thing about being a grad student in the theoretical area of chemistry is that I have no real use for such a pithy little toy, nor much use for a lab per se. Then again, I always wanted to build a fusion reactor…I wonder what a good quality vacuum chamber costs nowadays…

  24. Father Ogvorbis, OM says

    Nice, unfortunately close to useless for non-biologists, like me. They should also include a list of books for home study.

    Nonsense. The whole academic structure is designed to keep the Academic Elite living in luxury while the oil and banking executives make do on their paltry salaries and stock options. Anyone can do cutting-edge scientificky research but, until now, the evil adademicians horded the equipment in order to make themselves richer (hey, you think the ivory for one of those ivory towers is cheap?). Now, though, everyone can find out for themselves just how easy it is to sequence a genome, or study French fruit flies, or even develop a whole new gene which will stop liberals voting. You are wrapped up in the entire college monopoly — pay the Academic Elites their exorbitant salaries (far more than football or basketball coaches earn) so you can get a piece of paper allowing you into their club. Just buy a lab and, with a little luck, you should be pulling down 10,000, or 100,000, or even 1,000,000 lira a year!

  25. Chaos Engineer says

    I think I’ve read that advertising copy before…

    OK, found it; it’s at http://www.univeros.com/usenet/cache/alt.binaries.ebooks/10.000.SciFi.and.Fantasy.Ebooks/William%20Tenn/William%20Tenn%20-%20Child%27s%20Play.pdf

    Bild-A-Man Set #3. This set is intended solely for the use of children between the ages of eleven and thirteen. The equipment, much more advanced than Bild-A-Man Sets 1 and 2, will enable the child of this age-group to build and assemble complete adult humans in perfect working order. The retarded child may also construct the babies and mannikins of the earlier kits. Two disassembleators are provided so that the set can be used again and again with profit. As with Sets 1 and 2, the aid of a Census Keeper in all disassembling is advised. Refills and additional parts maybe acquired from The Bild-A-Man Company, 928 Diagonal Level, Glunt City, Ohio. Remember—only with a Bild-A-Man can you build a man!

    Sigh, I see that the author (William Tenn) just died last year, so he just missed the chance to see his dream come to fruition.

  26. David Marjanović says

    When I read the title, I thought “A death ray? :-) “. What does that say about me…?

    How long before you do PCR in your cellphone?

    10 years.

  27. mikko says

    I’m a molecular biologist. I have to say that I’m amazed at the eBay prices listed in that blog post, as I’m used to looking at the ridiculously inflated catalog prices for new professional equipment. It’s quite amazing what people will pay for a plastic box with a couple of wires in it when they’re spending someone else’s money. I suspect that the eBay prices will go up rather steeply, though, if every wannabe mad scientist decides to get an old centrifuge, let alone a PCR machine, which is a rather more specialist piece of equipment.

    Not surprised to see plasticky Biohit pipettors going for pennies (I’m saying this as a Finn about a Finnish product).

    The “dremel fuge” sounded quite frightening. If you’re going to make a DIY centrifuge, please use it alone behind closed doors and in a room with solid walls. If someone finds you with your DIY rotor embedded in your skull, then at least that’s just you.

    Also, you may want to check the type of plastic of a DIY gel box. One of the classic molecular biology lab disasters is to inadvertently fill the box with some liquid with way too much electrolytes in it (such as undiluted 10x stock of the running buffer), then leave a gel to run and return to find the whole thing boiling and steaming and the box melted onto the bench. I suspect that the various types of plastics will behave in different and exciting ways under these conditions. Getting impatient and running gels routinely at higher-than-recommended voltages can also produce interesting shapes of bent plastic.

  28. Russell says

    What a patriotic opportunity !

    For 500 clams MyersLab can give young Lieutenant Myers a leg up in his cavalry career by producing a squadron of centaurized clones for him to lead.

    Throwing in the apposite squid genes would allow them to wield ten sabers without lifting a finger from the reins, assuring Myers pere of a place on the Defense Science Board , while freeing his neighbors from fear of invasion by the RCMP.

  29. Russell says

    Glen Davidson says:
    4 December 2011 at 12:41 pm
    How would I go about hiring an Igor?

    Why hire an Igor?

    Just develop an ap that alters the P, D, and dash genes of your I-Pod

  30. Father Ogvorbis, OM says

    I wonder if this translates to physics stuff…

    Depends. How much are the Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brains going for these days?

  31. Father Ogvorbis, OM says

    Caine:

    But eveh Igor occasoinal forgets. That one. Not the other one. Or that other one. Or. . .

    How many Igors are there?

  32. says

    Ogvorbis:

    How many Igors are there?

    Many. I was intrigued by the We-R-Igors in Thief of Time. I think there are probably more than anyone thought, after all, Igors and Igorinas are considered to be excellent catches when it comes to the marriage market.

  33. Father Ogvorbis, OM says

    Caine:

    And, more important, there are lots more available for assembly as needed. Kinda makes me wonder about the mating habits of Igors and Igorinas. It hasn’t been covered in any that I’ve read . . . .

    And I loved Thief of Time

  34. colonelzen says

    Re Kagehi @ 27

    No. The no-communication theorem says you can’t communicate by means of entanglement. You can’t change the distant one, you can only read the local one (not knowing before hand which of the entangled states it is in) and then you will know which state the other will eventually manifest.

    The reports I read of the experiment were a bit less than clear but I gather that one or the other crystals would have a single quantum packet of energy, and the other not. Ok, I have mine, you have yours, and we go to opposite sides of the world. How can we communicate using the crystals?

    Answer: we can’t. I can be sure that if I look at mine and its vibrating that when you look at yours it won’t be, and vice versa. But there’s no way to change whether yours or mine is vibrating and no way to tell which is which, and when either of us reads it we destroy the entanglement save that comparison will later show them to have been complementary.

    — TWZ

  35. says

    I have also done something like this, and can confirm that $500 is reasonable for a basic lab setup (PCR, gels, simple transformations) – especially if you’re willing to leave reagents out of that price.

    However, I have to point out the obvious: if you’re doing anything more fancy than sequencing a gene or making fluorescent E. coli, you start adding zeros to that cost at an alarming rate. In particular, handling hazardous waste is a bear; I’ve simply refused to do it, because I can’t afford what it would take to store and dispose of it properly. And as always, you’ll be spending your time to save your money. (One thing DIY science has taught me is just how much engineering went into making the molecular biology “kits” idiot-proof…when you’re buying materials from the grocery store and pet shops, you learn quite a bit about the many ways these things can fail. And fail. And fail…)

    And I’ll point out another bit of obvious: I’m a grad student now, and I’m sitting in a lab that cost literally tens of millions to build (thank you NIH). If I can’t do it in here – and there are a lot of things we can’t do, either from ignorance or technical limitations or both – then there’s no way I’m doing it with a few hundred bucks of eBay surplus. We aren’t holding out on you with the cancer cures and crocoducks and so on. Those things are just really freakin’ hard.

    However, as an educational and political tool – yes, DIY science is awesome. People are scared of biotechnology because they have no frame of reference for it. If they’ve done some of it themselves, or even seen their neighbor’s kid set up a little lab in their basement, it’s not so freaky anymore.

    I’m also quite happy to wave the flag for letting genetic information be free. I think gene patents are inane (what am I supposed to do, invent around the human genome?) and the idea that people should be protected from their own genetics just makes me outright angry. It’s my body, darn it; I should be allowed to know what’s in it, and DIY science can do that. For instance, I’ve helped put on a “civil disobedience” workshop, where members of the public could come in and get their BRCA1 sequence (breast cancer risk gene, which is patented).

    There’s a network of DIY biologists and public lab spaces that is there to help people get started. Science is a lot like cooking; there are simple rules that keep you safe, and simple tricks that make the difference between things working and not, and it’s easier to learn from people who have done it.

    Finally, I’d also point out that home labs make the authorities nervous. If you do it, keep your nose clean; follow the relevant guidelines, and make it obvious you have done so (post your BSL level, put your MSDS sheets in a binder with a big label on it, etc). Many people like to post what they’re working on (to a public blog, the DIYbio list, etc) as a defensive measure. You may get checked out; I have been. But it’s very much in your best interest to announce your presence. Bad things happen when an untrained first responder stumbles into a lab that shouldn’t be there.

  36. says

    Ogvorbis:

    It hasn’t been covered in any that I’ve read . . .

    I expect it happens in the normal manner, perhaps with enhancements. :D I think it was in The Fifth Elephant that it was explained to Vimes that Igors and Igorinas were highly sought after by non-Igors and non-Igorinas, the Igorinas in particular being known for their attractiveness.

    In Carpe Jugulum, Nanny Ogg briefly explored the notion that Igor might have two penises, but it turns out Igor was talking about thumbs, having an extra on each hand and tails, as he gave Thcraps an extra one.

    And I loved Thief of Time

    Oh me too. The first time I read it, as soon as I finished it, I started it all over again. So much to love in that book.

  37. says

    What about us slightly miffed scientists? Am I still gonna be stuck with my “bread-mold and pseudomonas in a jar” feeble-ass bioweapons? How am I gonna take over the world with this lame stuff?

  38. DLC says

    Um… can you get me a price on a cheap, lightly used scanning electron microscope ?
    How’s about a cheap used GCMS ?

    And, I’m surprised no one asked about some sharks.
    with lasers. Frickin sharks, with frickin lasers.

  39. says

    Um… can you get me a price on a cheap, lightly used scanning electron microscope ?

    They show up on Ebay pretty often, actually. But isn’t it one of those things like the CNC milling machines – buying the main unit is just the beginning of the money-bleed?

  40. Part-Time Insomniac, Zombie Porcupine Nox Arcana Fan says

    Forget trying to get another pre-K – the school needs a science lab for the older kids! I’m sure they’d all like science class more if they could do some simple yet nifty experiments. Besides, they’ll be better prepared for high school this way – they’ll already know the safety rules and what equipment you can use to do this or that.

    Oh wait . . . I think this would get those jerks in the athletics program bawling. And I’m not the principal nor an actual teacher, so I doubt they’d listen to me. *grumbles*

  41. Charlie Foxtrot says

    The $500 for the lab is not a problem, the hard part is going to be putting together the active volcano to build my lair under!

    I wonder if there is a height restriction on volcanoes in my suburb?*

    (* I’m not commuting to the lair if I don’t have to!)

  42. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Shit. You can mine GenBank for free and develop bioinformatics/genetic software for the price of a badass computer and hours of pointy-headed loneliness. There are more than 100 trillion nucleotides in 100 million sequence records waiting for your attention. Halo has nothing on gigabytes of fasta files in courier fucking new for shear entertainment value.

    Why work wet?

    (Plus, the post set-up cost of reagents & consumables will eat you alive.)

  43. Charlie Foxtrot says

    Why work wet?

    That’s fine if you want a giant Tamagotchi, but if you’re looking for something to ride while leading your army of minions…

  44. mikko says

    @Antiochus Epiphanes: besides GenBank, there are also free dictionaries online.

    shear

    transitive verb

    1
    a : to cut off the hair from

    b : to cut or clip (as hair or wool) from someone or something; also : to cut something from

    c chiefly Scottish : to reap with a sickle

    d : to cut or trim with shears or a similar instrument

    sheer

    adjective

    obsolete : bright, shining

    2
    : of very thin or transparent texture : diaphanous

    3
    a : unqualified, utter

    b : being free from an adulterant : pure, unmixed

    c : viewed or acting in dissociation from all else

    4
    : marked by great and continuous steepness
    — sheer·ly adverb
    — sheer·ness noun

  45. says

    Why work wet?

    Because it can be fun? I say this as someone who works in computational biology. I might work in computing, and not really have a background in chemistry or biology, but I love getting to muck about in the lab. I went there tonight and prepared a few columns for use tomorrow and I like doing that. If someone wants to mine databases using bioinformatic techniques, or developing new techniques, hey good for them. I certainly like that too. But sometimes it is just fun to do hands on lab work.

  46. says

    I think the same goes with a lot of amateur science projects. I have a partially finished telescope. Why do people build these when they are not likely to discover much with their little 6″ reflector? Why not just mine publicly available databases that have more and better data than you will ever get yourself? I think we do it because it is fun to make things yourself, to work hands on, and to use what you have created. If your plans is to make great discoveries then perhaps this is not the best way to go, but if you want to challenge yourself, learn, and maybe do a bit of sciency stuff (amateurs can contribute) then I can see the appeal of inefficient amateur science hobbies.

  47. Rich Woods says

    @grahamoakley #38:

    Next on the list, a $500 particle accelerator.

    I can sell you a second-hand one for $5: a cathode ray tube.

  48. CompulsoryAccount7746 says

    @Antiochus Epiphanes#60:

    You can mine GenBank for free and develop bioinformatics/genetic software for the price of a badass computer and hours of pointy-headed loneliness. There are more than 100 trillion nucleotides in 100 million sequence records waiting for your attention. Halo has nothing on gigabytes of fasta files in courier fucking new for shear entertainment value.

    I have a badass computer, a software engineering background, and hours of pointy-headed loneliness. What needs doing?

    References on bioinformatics I’ve seen talked about various algorithms, services, and formats. But I haven’t seen straightforward explanations of what people do with them, or a list of things they wish they could do. Surely there’s more than gene motif hunting, measuring branch relatedness for diagrams, and guessing ontology; all of which have already been crawling with eyeballs for some time.

    And I know better than to run afoul of xkcd’s lesson on standards.

  49. says

    Answer: we can’t. I can be sure that if I look at mine and its vibrating that when you look at yours it won’t be, and vice versa. But there’s no way to change whether yours or mine is vibrating and no way to tell which is which, and when either of us reads it we destroy the entanglement save that comparison will later show them to have been complementary.

    Except, this then begs the question, “How the F… is this useful for building a computer, which is what they where talking about using the technique for?” I mean, don’t you have the same basic problem with what ever is in the computer parts as you would trying to use it over a long distance?

  50. says

    Why would I want to build a $500 molecular bio lab when I already have a $400 Freudian Psychotherapy lab made by IKEA in my living room?

  51. EvoMonkey says

    This reminds me of an emeritus Neuroscience professor who I knew in grad school. He was quite eccentric. He had some rather unconventional ideas. When he finally moved out of his lab he took tons of exotic electrophysiology equipment (much of it handmade) and set it all up in his garage. It looked like a movie set when all the equipment and oscilloscopes were powered up. It must have scared the hell out kids in his neighborhood.