Apps and smartphones may captivate consumers and investors at the moment, but the future of technology will be much more dizzyingly weird. Chances are, the most radical innovations in the 21st century won’t be built on silicon but on DNA. Over the past few years, the ease of crafting genes from scratch has gone way up, while the cost has gone way down.
But while the curve of biology’s version of Moore’s law bends upward, major obstacles remain to the kind of startup explosion ignited in personal computing by better, cheaper digital technology. And the difference comes down to this: everything in Steve Jobs’ garage was basically dry. Unlike other kinds of engineering, the essential materials of biotech are both wet and alive. And this makes working with them much more complicated than pulling out a laptop or a soldering iron.
An effort is under way, however, to make working with wet stuff easier in the hope of putting biology on more equal footing with less viscous technologies. And one of the tools that has biohackers buzzing at the moment is the OpenTrons, an open-source liquid-handling robot designed to make biotech not just drier and faster but also a lot more accessible to anyone with an idea.
The OpenTrons project originated at Genspace, a community biolab in Brooklyn founded in the DIY spirit of the Maker movement. Though genetic engineering technology has existed for decades, the practice of gene-splicing itself has mostly remained walled off within the confines of academic research institutions and corporate biotech. But enthusiast communities like Genspace have started to emerge around the world, inspired by the notion that putting biotechnology into the hands of more people could lead to a flourishing of creativity and discovery.
“Once this platform gets going, people will be able to collaborate on biotech projects the way they can collaborate on code today,” says OpenTrons co-founder Will Canine.
Artisinal Grunt Work
Anyone who has ever worked in a biology lab or hung out in one knows the work can be tedious and repetitive. While the science itself is complex, the labor involved in experimenting and engineering largely consists of sucking liquid out of one vial with a handheld instrument called a pipette and squirting it back into another one. “Our life science experts spend most of their time doing manual labor,” Canine says. “It’s a huge bottleneck for research.”
As OpenTrons’ creators point out, the process isn’t just boring but also error-prone. Human eyes, hands, and brains just can’t ensure the kind of precise consistency that a robot can. Lab robots are nothing new in biotech. But they tend to be incredibly expensive machines based on proprietary tech and intended for a narrow market of professional users.
The OpenTrons, by contrast, is open source, meaning anyone can copy, build, and modify the tech as they see fit. Its brain is a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, which costs all of $35, and many of its other components built with off-the-shelf technology.
The rapid rise of 3-D printing, Canine says, has led to a dramatic decrease in the price of the precision mechanical components needed to accurately transfer liquids. These components help keep the OpenTrons’ price down to $2,000 for the basic model—not trivial, but also less than the cost of a new iMac.
“We’re at the beginning of the digitization and automation of biotech,” says Ryan Bethencourt, who helps run Indie Bio, an arm of SOS Ventures, which backed OpenTrons through its HAXLR8TR hardware accelerator. Bethencourt is also a backer of OpenTrons’ Kickstarter. “The beauty of OpenTrons is that it’s built for researchers who don’t want to program, who are used to modern and simple user interfaces.”
Apps for Life
Canine’s early hopes for OpenTrons may not sound glamorous. He’s very excited about its potential to create standard, consistent lab protocols that yield regular, reproducible data. “The very first thing for us is giving people the ability to email a protocol,” he says.
But he’s also hopeful about the most ambitious applications for biotech. He says OpenTrons is working with Modern Meadow, which is working to “print” meat and leather without killing animals. He also sees great potential in synthetic biology, the branch of biotech working to stitch together novel organisms using one letter of the genetic alphabet at a time to brew everything from fertilizers to anti-malarial drugs.
Whatever the application, Canine believes a better biotech future will be hastened the more hands and minds can be freed up from doing the grunt work of biology. “Today people—Ph.Ds—spend most of their time moving tiny amounts of liquid by hand,” he says. “Our robot makes it so they don’t have to do that.”