The conditions of a mass biotech DIY movement


The idea of doing biological experiments with current biotechnological methods and conducting research projects at home is quite new. There are already many names in use referring to the same concept: bioDIY, home biology, biotech DIY, garage biology.

We have a detailed case example which can be considered as the first registered, high profile biotech DIY activity starting the era of useful garage biology: Recently Hugh Rienhoff amplified his daughter’s DNA at home to help doctors figure out her genetic disorder. From the Nature cover article:

“So he bought a used PCR machine, a microcentrifuge, some small-volume pipettes and a brand new gel box. All told, the equipment cost him about $2,000. With these simple tools and some sequence-specific DNA primers of his own design, he could pick the relevant genes out of his daughter’s genome and amplify them enough for sequencing. Freezing the samples and packing the tiny tubes on ice, Rienhoff sent them off for sequencing at about $3.50 a pop. He prepared upwards of 200.”

Another suggested project was the How to isolate amniotic stem cells from the placenta, at home! but so far I haven’t heard of anybody who really did that at home and I only isolated the cells at the lab.

In my coming series I’d like to examine the following conditions of a mass biotech DIY movement: acquiring skills, affordable kits, tools, hardware, motivations, business opportunities and impact.

acquiring the how to skills:

– good education tools, protocols, videos, howto-s on the web

– short intensive academic or industrial lab courses available for every citizen

– self-education in community: forming Homebrew Biotech Clubs

available, affordable tools, hardware:

– cheap kits: based on the Rienhoff example, a very basic home lab can be set up out of 2-3000 dollars, which is the price of a good laptop.

says Mr. Rienhoff in an email: I bought all the equipment used from a local vendor who buys equipment at auction and from universities. All the gear is at least ten years old so it was very used and low throughput. But given that my project was incredibly focused I did not need the more sophisticated equipment.

– used equipment network: small budget biotech startups and academic labs are already busy buying second hand equipments and lab tools through informal networks.


– really useful projects at home not just for entertainment: health – diseases, again Rienhoff’s efforts are paradigmatic.

business opportunities:

– build an used equipment network for bioDIYers 

– build a home biology store similarly to the Maker Store or Radio Shack home electronics components

– outsourcing some research or routine tasks to private home labs

18 thoughts on “The conditions of a mass biotech DIY movement

  1. Why do thermocyclers have to cost thousands of dollars? They’re not any more complicated than, say, a microwave oven. Is it a patent issue?

  2. Its a little early for garage biotech. However, given the Carlson’s curves rate of development in biotech instrumentation and capabilities, I expect to see the biotech equivalent of the Apple II PC sometime in the next decade. I believe that much of biomedical progress from that point on will be a result of the open source garage biotechnology that emerge starting in the next decade.

    One of the problems with conventional medicine is that it is still in the “Mainframe” era, with oligopolistic entities such as the AMA and the drug companies (the FDA being the enforcement branch of these) dominating the field. This is much like IBM and DEC in the 1960’s and 1970’s. True progress will occur once technology has broken the oligopolistic power of the conventional medical industry.

  3. Hi Alex: good question about the PCR machines. Well, I just talked to an industry guy at Phenix Research Products (named Michael Brown) about that and he told me that the patent was over at 2005. On the other hand, the Peltier elements are pricey and if you buy a used machine for a thousand bucks with no warranty than if you’re Peltier elements go wrong you have to pay 2000 to replace them. That is a bottleneck then.
    But this patent issue is really interesting I’ll take a Google magnifying look at it and write a post about it later.

  4. Attila,

    You may be surprised how cheaply you can acquire used, cast off science gear from private industry and academia. Just got 3 top end fluorescent microscopes, albeit needing restoration, for 1000 bucks.

    Hmm, now that I think about it, that would only be about 300 Euro, right?

  5. Hi there,

    I´m looking for a small, low price portable optical device in order to monitor a home made, 55 gln aerobic reactor with whole raw potato slurry, mineral complements and culture media… the idea is a SCP process to obtain nucleotide, amino and else nutrients.

    Will a regular educational fluorometer, turbidimeter or colorimeter with the right software do the work? Could you please suggest a software name and the optical device for this matter, including nucleotide, amino and else nutrients measuring?

    Thanks in advance, my best regards,

    Optical device for PH, and pO2 monitoring
    Fernando Ortiz Serrano
    Casa: (593) 42 391 213 Celular: (593) 92 363 544 skype:ecuafosy
    Guayaquil- Ecuador

  6. Or, should I say… I’m NOT going to go all out and build a secret basement filled with all sorts of crazy gizmos. Nope, not gonna happen. 😉

    swivel sweeper

  7. Try openpcr, its only $600. Also, you would have thought that he could have sequenced the dna himself if he already had most of the equipment.

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