Gene in a bottle: DIY biotechnology

MEREDITH PATTERSON is not your typical genetic scientist. Her laboratory is based in the dining room of her San Francisco apartment. She uses a plastic salad spinner as a centrifuge and Ziploc plastic bags as airtight containers for her samples. But the genetically modified organism she is attempting to create on a budget of less than $500 could provide a breakthrough in food safety.

The 31-year-old former computer programmer and now biohacker is working on modifying jellyfish genes and adding them to yoghurt to detect the toxic chemical melamine, found in baby milk in China last year after causing deaths and kidney damage to thousands of infants. Her idea is to engineer yoghurt so that in the presence of the toxin it turns fluorescent green. If her experiment succeeds, she will release the design into the public domain.

"I haven’t had a huge amount of success so far," says Patterson. "But science is often about failing until you get it right." She has decided to invest in an electroporator she found on eBay for $150, which should speed things up. "It’s actually not that hard. It’s a bit like making yoghurt. And if there’s material left over from the experiment, I can eat it," she says.

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