You Too Can Be a Molecular Biologist (or an Engineer, or a Programmer)!

Aug 23, 2013

The Lab Man was somewhat disbelieving when he read this recent article about a Brooklyn artist who creates 3D images of faces based on interpretation of collected DNA.  Shades of Gattaca!  At first I assumed she somehow “holistically” conjured an imagined image from supposed DNA.  But NO!  There is real, sophisticated science involved!   She uses a DIY biology lab called Greenspace to extract and amplify the collected DNA.  She sends the samples away for sequencing of select SNPs and inputs that sequence information into a bioinformatics program (unspecified) which extrapolates facial traits.  She then enters this information in a program (which she wrote) which builds a 3D model of a face based on these genetic traits and finally uses a Zcorp 3D printer to create a full color life size facial replica.  Of course, the operative question is how accurate are the replicas?  The artist indicates they are more of a general likeness, exhibiting a family resemblance, than an exact depiction. 

Other than being rather creepy, the really striking thing is the collection of rather high-power technical tools she brings to bear to create this “art.”  Keep in mind that she’s not a technical person and got the idea while in therapy!   She has tapped into a growing number of DIY-oriented technical operations (hackerspaces) which give individuals access to high-powered tools and expertise for a reasonable fee.   Clients include artists, entrepreneurs seeking facilities and tools, class groups and people who just want to learn.  Let’s look at some more examples.

Noisebridge is non-profit, infrastructure provider for technical-creative projects located in San Francisco.  Their 5,200 square foot facility contains an electronics labmachine shopsewing/crafting suppliestwo classroomsconference arealibrarydarkroom and kitchen.  They cater to people interested in programming, hardware hacking, physics, chemistry, mathematics, photography, security, robotics, all kinds of art and, of course, technology. 

Supposedly they were inspired by c-base, a non-profit organization in Berlin devoted to increasing knowledge and skills pertaining to computer software, hardware and data networks.  The story is that their location is a remnant of a crashed space station now located underneath the city center of Berlin!  Sounds like a must-visit place!

MITERS was originally founded in Cambridge, MA, as a club to give MIT students free and open access to computers.  MITERS now features a mill, lathe, band saws, welders and other hands-on tools, in addition to a host of oscilloscopes, high-end soldering irons and other EE prototyping tools. It's a member-run creative haven and build-anything-you-want, if-you-break-it-fix-it space.

TechShop is a multi-city chain of fabrication and prototyping studios.  Facilities include laser cutters, plastics and electronics labs, a machine shop, a wood shop, a metal working shop, a textiles department, welding stations and a waterjet cutter. Members have open access to design software, featuring the entire Autodesk Design Suite.

Lest you think this is all engineer/programmer oriented, there is BioCurious, a hackerspace for biotech located in Sunnyvale, CA.  They provide low-cost laboratory space, tools and training to members.   And starting up in San Diego is Bio, Tech and Beyond, an innovation space dedicated to biology.  They describe themselves as part science educator, part biotech start up accelerator. 

There are no doubt many other similar operations.  The amazing thing is that such organizations make accessible tools, technology and expertise that one would have only found at very high-end facilities a decade ago.  Access to the general public was out of the question.  The idea, and hope, is that creative minds will thrive and innovate using such facilities – at a reasonable cost.  It’s a very interesting movement.  Want to get more insight?  Attend SLAS2014 in San Diego for these talks:

  • Jordon Miller from Rice University will talk about his biological 3D printing work and interaction with open science groups.
  • Alpheus Bingham from Innocentive will talk about crowdsourcing and open innovation.
  • Paul Kowalczyk from Scynexis will talk about using open source tools and open databases to build learning models in support of neglected diseases.


Until Next Time,

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!


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