Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lab-in-a-Box Becoming a Reality

Design/BIOlogy :: A while back I was doing some preliminary concept art for a lab-in-a-box project. The idea was to create a kit people could buy either as a set, or piecemeal, containing all the items you would need to get involved in biology -- or more specifically -- synthetic biology and genetics.

It ambitiously included a GoGoFuge-inspired centrifuge, a OpenPCR-style thermocycler, an Arduino-driven incubator, a mini-fridge, an open source magnetic stirrer, an electroporator, and a touchscreen interface to organize and integrate the box's various functions.

Looking at the bigger picture, it would help get average people involved in synthetic biology both empowering them and leveraging the "crowd" to accelerate scientific progress that would benefit us all.

The Lab-in-a-Box deployed, next to a crated version.
Looking at open source lab equipment that was already fairly accessible and affordable, a Kickstarter to develop the missing pieces and tie it all together looked pretty promising. Like many concept projects I've worked on in the past, it was fun but I didn't expect it to materialize anytime soon.

Then, much to my surprise, I saw in both Wired and Popular Science, the Darwin Toolbox developed by a team including Philipp Boeing, whom was part of the collaboration I was working on a few months back.

Though still being worked out, the Darwin Toolbox is a shining example of the breakneck speed development is moving, and how the proliferation of makerspaces may serve as a springboard for other revolutions like synthetic biology to take off from. Something can go from a collaborative conversation and some rough SketchUp screen-grabs, to a prototype vying for a place in MIT's iGEM competition in just a couple of months.

The website for the Darwin Toolbox credits the "Institute of Making," a makerspace run by the University College London (UCL) that offers makers 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, and other more traditional tools. It is a place that enables people, who would otherwise lack the tools and expertise, to turn their concepts into tangible realities. Without the makerspace, it is likely the Darwin Toolbox would never have gotten off the drawing board -- at least not as fast or as impressively. The makerspace's ability to help cross the boundaries between different scientific and technological disciplines makes it a potential cornerstone for our communities tomorrow.  

The Darwin Toolbox team cultivated the concept and finalized the design details for fabrication. Above is an artistic visualization of the final product. They would then set out to build a prototype using tools at the "Institute of Making," a makerspace run by the University College London (UCL).

The Darwin Toolbox did indeed make it off the drawing board, and no matter how it faired at iGEM, it has already served as an example of this new model for collaboration and R&D.

The final article featured at this year's MIT iGEM competition, designed and developed by the Darwin Toolbox team. It is smaller and has excluded some of the features preliminary concepts imagined. Of course, if successful, it  could lead to a whole line of Toolboxes varying in size, price, and capabilities. 
It was imagined by a loose collaboration working remotely via the Internet, finalized by a small team of professionals drawn from various companies and institutions, and created in a makerspace to be entered into a unique, world-class competition. It holds the potential to be developed into an open source and/or proprietary platform, empowering the average person to take part in the synthetic biology revolution, and thus setting the stage for further innovations to continue onward. Even if the Darwin Toolbox by name fails to take off after iGEM, the important idea of a desktop laboratory and how to bring it to the masses will not.

In this regard, the Darwin Toolbox has already won, encouraging others out there to leverage emerging technology and revolutionary institutions like the makerspace, to realize their own ideas.

Keep an eye on the Darwin Toolbox by visiting their website here, or following them on Twitter