Event report: “Bio-hacking” @madlabuk, a nest of nesta innovators #DIYBIO

Madlab is this amazingly cool space in the Northern Quarter where coders and hackers* and people who just want to muck about with technology (information, bio) get together and hangout and exchange ideas and enthusiasm. A bit like bacteria swapping bits of dna, really – it’s a petri dish.

If you’re reading this in the hours after publication (Thursday 28th Feb), then you have time to get down to its latest gathering of geeks this evening. If afterwards, don’t worry – there’s always something going on! You do not need a PhD to attend. They are as friendly a bunch as you’ll ever meet.
Which brings us to the events of Thursday February 7th. Madlab hosted a workshop and evening panel discussion about “local bio-economies,” with help from NESTA, (the photos to the right are stolen from NESTA’s Storify account of the day).

lab1And your humble correspondent tried (and failed) to do a little basic genetic engineering…
The plan was for us the twenty or so people present to get into teams and create a basic “genetic circuit” and then convince some e-coli that they wanted to take it up. After a couple of days the e-coli would be feeling – and looking – blue.

So, after a brief, high energy and highly-entertaining intro from Asa Calow, (DIY Biologist and Founder and Director of the MadLab) we were reminded of the lab rules

  • no talking about petridishclub
  • no food or drink in the lab
  • gloves and aprons at all times
  • wash/gel your hands when you leave the lab
  • aaargh spills
  • no running, diving or bombing
  • aseptic technic – keep air exposure to a minimum, don’t cross-contaminate

We then got divided up into small teams and given our cool kit – micro-pipettes, test tubes and that sort of stuff.

lab2There was the sucking and measuring and squirting of fluids from containers into receptacles (every bit as much fun as it sounds) as we tried (and failed, in Team MCFly’s case) to clean off some beads, introduce some genetic stuff and try to make it into a loop that would be useful at the next stage…

Then we had to “heat shock” the e-coli by dumping it for precisely 30 seconds in a tub of ice. When “shocked”, e-coli tends to trade plasmids to survive. That’s when – the theory went – we could introduce our sneakily created circuits into the mix.

The chilled e-coli were then un-chilled by being put in a 40 degree heat bath.  And then left to stew in their own juices for a couple of days.
(It must have been more traumatic for the e-coli than that final 10 minutes of Terminator 2 was for the T-1000!)

To be honest, if any MCFly readers are hoping to avoid starvation in the next twenty years through the wonders of genetically modified food they better a) pay attention to Liebig’s Law and b) get doing this GM thing themselves, rather than relying on me. I was ten left pinkies when it came to lab technique.

There was even a chap with a laptop writing a short story or two inspired by the events unfolding on the day. Talk about bridging the two cultures divide!

Marc Hudson

Left-over scraps of data

* Hacking being “the creative mis- or re-appropriation of technology”

BTW If you’re interested in genetic engineering and/or feminism and/or science-fiction, then Octavia Butler’s novel “Dawn” is essential and mind-bending.

And finally (!) And on the subject of laboratories and tacit knowledge and so on, may I recommend Steven Rose’s “The Making of Memory”, a book that won its fair share of prizes.


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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