Julie Legault - Amino
A DIY DNA Hacking Kit For The Home
The Amino just might be the most ambitious project I’ve had on the site. It’s definitely the one I feel least qualified to explain, which means I’m right in its target audience. Amino is an at home DNA hacking kit that allows anyone as young as 8 to grow their own cells and give them interesting properties, and has been described as a “bacterial Tomagachi” and “the easy-bake oven of bio-reactors” by the press.
Talking to Julie, it’s not hard to imagine kids and adults alike making their own pigments to create art that glows in the dark or changes color based on the type of light it’s exposed to. In the future, Amino users could also change the nutritional content of their food by creating their own yeast, or produce their own scents.
I love the idea of something that makes science more personal while showing off how the fruits of scientific experimentation are incorporated into our lives.
The Amino team is almost complete hand-assembling the kits promised to their IndieGogo backers and is looking to start large scale manufacturing soon. :)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
You started this at MIT Media Lab and I’m curious how you got the idea to make this your project.
Sure. Before joining the Media Lab, I was doing wearable technology. I studied goldsmithing and I was interested in how we can use traditional making, and the traditional aesthetics of jewelry, to make wearable tech more appreciated and more desirable. [After I joined the lab] I kind of lost interest in wearable tech because I’d done quite a few projects and they’d been successful, at least in museums and stuff, at bringing the aesthetics and technology together.
I was looking for something new and I took a class over winter break - microfluidics for synthetic biology. Everyone told us when you take your winter break class, take something you would never normally do, and that is definitely a class I would never normally do. So I took that, and we had a talk from a lady named Natalie Kuldell who started a foundation to teach teachers how to integrate synthetic biology into their curriculum. She was talking about how you can use cells to create perfume. One of the things we did was make E. coli smell like banana, and I thought it was amazing. The fact that I could, as a non-scientist, do this in a couple of days - assemble a genetic circuit and have it actually create something for me - was just amazing.
So, I took another few workshops. I did one with Synbiota where we created a violet pigment that’s actually an anti-cancerous compound. And again, that took two days. And we did it in our lab director’s kitchen, eating and drinking coffee while doing genetic engineering at the same time. I thought that was really powerful. The fact that you don’t actually even need to be in a lab, and can just be in your kitchen and still do this… I was really inspired, and I was really excited.
But I was speaking to my other friends at MIT and they were all terrified that I could do bio-engineering. They didn’t quite understand it and were like, “Oh, bioterrorism,” and all that. So I thought that even if very future-thinking people are still afraid… it’s mostly because they’re not experienced. Some of them eventually did a work shop and once they did it they were like, “Okay, I get it.” [I thought it was] similar to how we learn with computers. Once you start programming you kind of get it, like, “Oh, okay. I can do this. I understand it. And now I understand the whole field better.”
I thought I would be the same with genetic engineering and synthetic biology. I thought that if we get more and more people to at least have a basic understanding of it, or a quick experience with it in high school or at home, then they’ll feel more comfortable with the subject. And they can take part in the discussions about the laws and the ethics and decide if they even want it in their body. And if they don’t, that’s fine. But at least it’s their own decision. It’s not the media telling them that they’ll die or things like that.
I’m curious where you think some of that fear comes from. Is it a fear that hobbyists will make mistakes and unleash some ungodly creation? A fear of premeditated mischief?
I think it’s definitely both those things. There is a sense that if anyone has access to it then anyone can start making and creating these unexpected creatures, or that people with malicious intentions will use it. If you look back in history, and this is quite apparent with computers, any time there’s a new technology or science that people don’t understand, it produces fear.
In the eighties, people were terrified of computers. And I think it makes sense. It’s much easier to see the dangers of it, and the benefits are sometimes so mundane, but so powerful. Like insulin is kind of a mundane thing that you don’t really think about, but I don’t know how many people rely on it to survive. I think it’s more a question of not understanding what’s going on. And when it’s behind closed doors with scientists in lab coats and anything could happen and we don’t really know… I think that’s where it comes from.
The project examples you gave were just a couple of days, and I was wondering how typical that is for projects? How long will it take to do the apps the Amino ships with?
Well, the first thing you need to do is to grow the cells that you’re going to transform. To grow them takes 12 hours. We usually recommend doing it overnight. So you put them in in the evening and you have them in the morning. Then you put the DNA program in. The actual transformation, like, you putting the DNA program in the cells is only a couple of hours. But once it’s in there you need to wait for the cells to grow again, so that’s another twelve hours.
Biology’s a little slow.
Then you can put it in the liquid culture, that’s when it’s in the main chamber, and have it grow and start expressing the proteins you want. In total it’s like a 36 hour experiment where you’re not doing much some of the time - you’re just watching it grow. And that’s typical in biology. You need to wait for your cells to grow.
That’s seems pretty good though. Two days is really not that long to run an experiment, I think. For some reason when I was initially reading about it I thought it would take much longer.
Yeah, I think kids can still be interested after a couple of days.
Yeah, how young do you think you would go for an Amino?
The youngest we’ve had that completely did the workshop and understood what they were doing were like eight and nine years old. They were good at knowing what was going on and participating in the discussion. And then we’ve had their younger siblings, like five or six years old, and they can do the experiment, but they just can’t quite understand what they’re doing, which makes sense because they’re little. In the home context, if you have a younger sibling it would be okay to have a five or six year old do it. Right now, we’re going in through schools and we’re focussing on ages 8 and up, just because of the level of concentration needed. Just because you need a lot of concentration to do it.
Could you describe your ideal outcome from somebody owning an Amino? What are you most excited about for having these things in people’s homes?
One of the things I am personally excited about is giving non-scientists, and people who have no interest in science, the ability to create using science. So I’m really excited for people at home to be able to create their own yeast that, say, glows in the dark. And then [having them] make cakes and grow beers from it. Just having that really simple application for something that’s actually super powerful and complex.
And I like imagining kids having this as a Christmas present. You know, you’re so excited when you get your Christmas gifts. I remember getting a chemistry set and following the instructions for the first few and then being like, “Fuck these instructions, I’m going to make my own.” And most of the time it didn’t work out, but I’m really excited to see kids trying to create things that we haven’t told them to. And it will still be safe because we’re only providing safe chemicals.
One of the apps we’re putting out is to create your own pigments that either glows under UV or can glow in the dark. I’m sure someone will create a pigment that we’ve never seen before or that changes color over time or something. I think that will be really cool.
The design of kit is very pleasant. I was wondering how you decided to use wood for the case. I saw some of the early prototypes had been 3d printed, and it looked like there were some aluminum versions. How did you settle on the final design for it?
That took way longer than you would expect. When I was designing it, a lot of it was, “How do we make it not scary? How do we make it friendly and enticing enough that kids want to play with it, but also adults want to have it in their home?”
One of the things we really want to do is allow people (mostly adults, probably) to create yeast for brewing and baking. [To create] yeast with added vitamins and added flavors. So it needs to fit in the home quite well. Not something you’d be ashamed of having. Something you’d be quite proud of having.
That’s where the wood came from - this idea of homeliness. Something that’s quite warm, both to the eye and the touch. Something that’s as far away from what you imagine a scientific experiment lab looking like, which would probably be aluminum or plastic. I think when people think of technology, they think of aluminum from their Macbooks and everything. We’re trying to change that first perception. When you see it as a wooden box, you see it as something approachable and that you don’t need a lot of skills or knowledge to use.
With something like a brewing kit, if you were to make your own yeast, what are some of the things you could do with it.
You can change the flavor of it. With baking you can add different flavors to the yeast. Or you can also add different vitamin content. If you don’t eat a lot of green veggies you could make it produce vitamin K and then you have a good excuse to eat a thousand cakes. You could also do fun things like have it change colors. You could have it glow in the dark.
You could explore the bio-sensor realm of synthetic biology. It’s similar to Arduino where you have an actuator and a sensor but on a biology level. If the bacteria detects, say, heat it will change color or smell different. That might be really interesting. I don’t know how stable it would be if you were to bake it, but that’s something we’re going to explore.
I was looking at the sensor comparisons on your site, and I was wondering how you’re able to get those lab quality sensors for so much less or in such a compact form.
Lab hardware is becoming so much cheaper, but it’s mostly because now almost everyone who is a hacker/maker is an engineer and they can see what it takes to make a machine run. A centrifuge, for example, is sold for thousands of dollars, but you only need a motor that spins at 9,000 RPM. You only need a computer fan motor and a little 3D printed holder for your tube.
Most of the things we’ve done for the first version of the Amino is break open computer fans and that sort of thing to create the system. Now we have custom sensors, but those sensors are actually modeled on other technologies that are the same as what are being used in science, except they’re in our home appliances and they’re much cheaper for it. When you’re in a big lab the equipment needs to be very precise, but when you’re doing something like Amino in the home you don’t need that level of precision.
We also have a really great mechanical engineer, which really helped in making things cheaper.
We’re almost out of time and I just have two more questions that I ask for every project. What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this project?
I think it was that so many people came together to make it happen. I used to work in speculative design: where you come up with an idea, and you make a prototype, and it goes in a museum, and you give a few talks about it, and everyone’s very proud of you but nothing happens with it. You know, you put it in your closet or it stays in a gallery. But this time it’s actually real and friends and engineers and scientists helped out. Everyone’s been very supportive. The media lab was very supportive. Yeah, that part was really amazing.
And what was the most challenging part of realizing this project.
I think we’re going through it right now. It’s going to be a really boring answer, but it’s taking it from a prototype that works and turning it into a consumer product that other people can use for a long time. With our prototype, you could have used it for like two weeks and then you would have been in trouble. But this version we’re making now, you can use it for years.
Yeah, that’s quite a challenge. Of course, if we had unlimited amounts of money we could do that easily and sell it to you for 1,500 dollars or thirty grand because the pumps are so expensive, but it was a finding the right balance of quality materials and durability.