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I played God with The Odin's DIY CRISPR Kit

Engadget Engadget 30/06/2016 Andrew Tarantola
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Twenty-three years after its cinematic debut, I finally understand where Alec Baldwin was coming from in the 1993 psychological thriller Malice. The power to bring life where once there was none is a potent drug. I was recently afforded the opportunity to create a new kind of bacterial life thanks to the DIY Bacterial CRISPR Kit from Bio-Hacking collective The Odin. I honestly haven't had this much fun doing science since AP Chem.

The Odin offers a number of experimental kits, including advanced sets that leverage CRISPR gene editing breed bioluminescent bacteria or search for new antibiotic compounds. The set I tried, however, was far more rudimentary: I was to modify the genes of a harmless E. coli strain so that it can survive in a hostile environment that it would otherwise perish in.

Specifically, these E. coli bacteria (like all eukaryotic cells) produce proteins, tiny biological machines that perform all sorts of critical functions within the cell, in order to stay alive. Proteins are made by a structure called the ribosome. Under normal conditions aboard an agar-filled petri dish, the bacteria have no problem generating these molecules and will thrive. But if you try to use them to colonize an agar plate that also contains the molecule streptomycin, they'll quickly die. This is because streptomycin binds with the E. coli ribosome and prevents it from operating. However, using CRISPR technology, you can knock out the gene that streptomycin binds with, thereby enabling the bacteria to live in this otherwise deadly environment.

The Odin's kit is a tabletop laboratory and contains all the hardware and biological materials that you'll need to run this experiment five times. It includes a pipette and tips, 14 petri dishes, powdered agar and agar-strep medium, plus all the chemicals and enzymes you'll need to reprogram bacterial DNA. You'll also have access to a continually-evolving online protocol guide that walks you through the various steps of the CRISPR process.

I should note that the protocol guide is fairly barebones at the moment, given that The Odin only just began shipping products after its successful Indiegogo campaign. The team is constantly updating the instructions for clarity and context. As it stands, you're kind of left on your own to determine exactly how to perform the experiment. That is, the specific step-by-step instructions are clear enough but you'll have to figure the most effective way to perform them for yourself. Honestly, I absolutely love that. Sitting there having to really ponder how each piece of this biological puzzle fits together rather than being spoonfed information, I found, was a welcome change of pace and immensely enjoyable mental challenge.

Actually proceeding through the experiment was easy enough -- really not that far off from following baking instructions. You do the steps the right way, in the right order, and you should be successful. This experiment took me basically a weekend to finish, though most of that time was spent waiting for the bacteria to culture, incubate after being genetically modified and then recultured on the streptomycin-infused plates. There was maybe four to five hours of actual "work" required -- I'd venture to guess even middle school-aged kids could run this experiment with a bit of guidance. Once you get past the mind-bending terminology and high-level theory, actually doing the steps is surprisingly straightforward. Heck, if you want to skip the theory altogether and just bang through the steps to try and get a result, that's totally doable as well.

That said, I was unable to start my bacterial colonies into growing on the strep plates the first time around. Turns out that successful biohacking is hard. I'll admit, spending a weekend running through the steps only to have the results turn out negative was a bit frustrating. But, I realized, that's half the fun of being a scientist (even one without a biology degree doing genetic engineering on his kitchen table). I mean Einstein didn't just pull the Theory of Relativity out of his ass to impress a dinner party, Watson and Crick didn't discover DNA over a long weekend and John Hammond sure as heck spent more than five hours whipping up dinosaurs from petrified mosquito bellies. Now that something had gone awry, I had to go to back, figure out what went wrong, make adjustments and try again. It's a whole new set of puzzles.

Best of all, I'm not stuck figuring this out entirely on my own. If I hit a figurative wall and just can't get the experiment to work, all I have to do is email the guys from The Odin and they'll help troubleshoot. That's a level of customer service you don't often see in crowdfunded campaigns. In fact, when I repeated the experiment after consulting with The Odin's staff, I did eventually manage to successfully colonize the strep-infused plates.

Overall, this was blast. I learned technical skills, such as how to make agar plates and how to properly handle a pipette as well as the scientific theory behind what was happening in the tubes. The DIY bacteria kit will run you $140, the yeast edition is $20 more, plus almost all of the included hardware can be reused for future experiments. And if you want to go all mad-scientist, The Odin also sells a number of a la carte ingredients and precursors so you can experiment to your heart's content.

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