LavaAmp: cheapest pocket PCR thermocycler dreamed for DIY biologists

The LavaAmp is a portable PCR thermocycler that has the potential to become the default garage biology (home biology, bioDIY, DIYbio) tool once it hits the market. Think of Apple II for personal computing or MakerBot for 3D printing.

The 1st LavaAmp prototype was shipped this week from Biodesic to Gahaga Biosciences and the process is documented and engineering details uncovered in Rob Carlson’s post.

The people behind are mainly ex SciFoo Campers and open science advocates: Guido Nunez-Mujica, Joseph Jackson, Rob Carlson, Jim Hardy and a cool engineer Rik Wehbring.

Here’s the pic of the prototype:

lavaamp-thumb-500x375In the 2007 proof-of-concept paper, entitled A Pocket-Sized Convective PCR Thermocycler, authors Nitin Agrawal, Yassin A. Hassan, and Victor M. Ugaz wrote:

Herein, we introduce an innovative thermocycling system that
harnesses natural convection phenomena to amplify DNA rapidly by the PCR in a greatly simplified format. A key element of this design is an architecture that allows the entire thermocycling process to be actuated pseudo-isothermally by simply maintaining a single heater at a constant temperature, thereby enabling a pocket-sized battery-powered device to be constructed at a cost of about US$10.


Realizing the potential of the device and thinking about how to build a digital thermocontroller for it with the Arduino I contacted Victor Ugaz this January and was informed that they only built the proof-of-the-concept  devices testing them in the lab interested mainly in ‘understanding the physics of the thermally driven flow and its effect on the reaction’. But it was obvious to me that somebody will produce those devices for the market and make them affordable to people as it seemed to me as the familiar case of the low(est)-hanging-fruit.

So when Joseph Jackson mentioned to me his grandiose open science plans and the groups’  ‘super affordable pcr’ project I became instantly interested. As Rob Carlson writes:

The intended initial customers are hobbyists and schools.  The price point for new LavaAmps should be well underneath the several thousand dollars charged for educational thermocyclers that use heater blocks powered by peltier chips.

Aging-centric genetic health database in California: 100k people, ~65yrs, 700k SNPs, telomeres too

Kaiser Permanente alongside with UCSF plans for genetic analyses of an unprecedented 100,000 older Californians, the Technology Review writes in Massive Gene Database Planned in California

The effort will make use of existing saliva samples taken from California patients, whose average age is 65. Their DNA will be analyzed for 700,000 genetic variations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, using array analysis technology from Affymetrix. Through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the resulting information will be available to other researchers, along with a trove of patient data including patients’ Kaiser Permanente electronic health records, information about the air and water quality in their neighborhoods, and surveys about their lifestyles.

The target age group shows that the focus is on “secondary aging”:

Given the high average age of the group, the platform will also be a boon to studying diseases of aging. “One might want to ask,” Schaefer says, “what are the genetic influences on changes in blood pressure as people age, and how are those changes in blood pressure related to diseases of aging, like stroke and Alzheimer’s and other cardiovascular diseases?”

UCSF will perform separate procedures on the samples to determine the length of telomeres–sections of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect against damage. The length of telomeres is associated with cell division and aging. One of the coinvestigators on the project is Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at UCSF who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on telomeres.

Sage Bionetworks Update: building an OA standard for human disease biology

Sage Bionetworks is a not-for-profit organization developing an open-access “pre-competitive” platform for Sagelogonetworked and annotated models of human disease. It’s a huge and unparalleled bioinformatics enterprise: starting with an anonymous $5 million donation and soon making high throughput, large-scale human and mouse biological data (largely from Merck) available in the range that’s already in the public domain today. The co-founders are real big shots, Stephen Friend, a former successful Merck Executive and Eric Schadt, now a Chief Scientific Officer of Pacific Biosciences, who is “an industry leader in network biology with a number of high-profile publications over the past 5 years that have energized the systems biology community.”

For the last couple of months there was only minimal information available on the Sage website but now scientists interested can get the big picture in more details via a significant update.

The strong motivation behind is to build an open-access standard platform for human disease biology because

human disease biology has no common languages, no accessible communal repositories and no government, corporate or foundation investment in generating an inclusive resource….The experimental data underlying disease biology, like the genome itself, needs to be open access because the data is simply the beginning of the process….

Human disease biology is so complex, interconnected and expensive to research that the existing dominant business strategies of building and patenting unique models need to be replaced by a common standard. Like the internet, disease biology models will gain strength by their very nature as public platforms for interoperability and communication – this approach is at the very heart of that strength.

At the heart of the Sage model are the so called Global Coherent Datasets that will be for the first time available for scientists working all around the world. We’re talking about a real goldmine here for researchers:SagediseasemodelsAnd if that doesn’t sound good enough for a start then the following Sage Datasets will be available in 1 to 2 years: Continue reading

Top 10 PLoS Articles based on online usage

Big news at PLoS: today Mark Patterson announced on the PLoS blog that

“As part of our ongoing article-level metrics program, we’re delighted to announce that all seven PLoS journals will now provide online usage data for published articles”.

I downloaded the entire dataset and as a starter sorted it according to Combined Usage = numbers of HTML page views (the full text version of our articles) + PDF downloads + XML downloads

Here is the Top Ten most viewed PLoS articles according to the newly released article-metrics (read the FAQ too).


Mapping neurons without glial cells ~ SNP genotyping w/o whole sequencing?

Nature’s Journal Club column is usually a good & always a short read providing exciting angles on scientific topics/papers from good researchers. Recently ‘neuroscientist’ Dave Featherstone argued for a broader approach to brain mapping by not restricting it only to the connectome between neurons. Neurons are making up less than 10% of the human brain while most brains cells are glia neglected by scientists making the wiring diagram of a ‘complete’ human brain.

For example, consider the recent study of adenosine and sleep led by Philip Haydon and Marcos Frank at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (M. M. Halassa et al. Neuron 61, 213–219; 2009). Adenosine binds to receptors on neurons, thereby regulating neuronal signalling. Interestingly, adenosine seems to represent ‘sleepiness': it accumulates during wakefulness and dissipates during sleep. Where does it come from? It is generated from adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is secreted by astrocytes — a major type of glia.
Therefore, if we want to map the functional brain connections controlling sleep, we need to include glia and the extracellular space between glia and neurons. If we’re going to understand brain function by mapping the brain, we need to include most of the brain in our map.

I tried to draw an analogy between the situation in brain mapping and personal genomics on FriendFeed:


Update: it seems Dave Featherstone had something similar in mind as an analogy, he answered my email the following way:

Yeah, that’s a good analogy. The original version of my column said the connectome would be like if the human genome had only sequenced exons. But that sentence was cut for space considerations.

1st UK Maker Faire, Newcastle, March 2009, makers wanted!

The first Euro Maker Faire in Brussels was an evening event but now with the first UK Maker Faire makers have a chance to hang around for 2 days and develop or deepen their DIY skills similar to the original US events (we enjoyed Austin Maker Faire in 2007). Let me know if you’re interested.

from my mailbox:

We are shortly to publicly announce the first UK Maker Faire but thought you would appreciate advanced notification.
The Make team forwarded me your names and email addresses as they believe you might be interested in the Newcastle upon Tyne Maker Fair on March 14th-15th 2009.

The first UK Maker Fair will take place in Newcastle 14-15 March as part
of Newcastle ScienceFest – a 10 day festival celebrating creativity and

This two-day, family-friendly event celebrates the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset and features interactive exhibits organized by individual enthusiasts, hobbyist groups and clubs as well as student groups. It’s for creative, resourceful folks who like to tinker and love to make things. Maker Faire is an opportunity to share what you do with others. Continue reading