Wednesday 7 March 2012

For Science! OpenPCR @ Madlab

Last week's DIYBio was a special event, to get stuck into building a couple of PCR machines. In addition to our home-made one, we also got our hands on what we think is the first OpenPCR machine in the UK.

Getting a bit ahead of myself though. What is PCR?
PCR is a relatively simple and inexpensive tool that you can use to focus in on a segment of DNA and copy it billions of times over. So, even with a small DNA sample, such as from spitting in a tube, or tearing off a piece of a leaf of lettuce, PCR allows to you make a bunch of copies of the DNA so you have enough to analyze. PCR is used every day to diagnose diseases, identify bacteria and viruses, match criminals to crime scenes, and in many other ways.
The OpenPCR is a really neat idea: it's the first example of truly open-source hardware I've ever seen. I was confused about how hardware can be 'open source', but what this essentially means is that the precise schematics of all the machine components are readily and freely available. So, if you had the time/materials and tools, you could build yourself one. The kit itself is supplied as an awesome box of bits (wood! Arduino! Metal things!) and costs something like $500 (ish). It then hooks up to a nice AIR app and you can do what you like with it.

In addition to the OpenPCR, the clever chaps at Madlab have put together a fantastic home-grown PCR machine, which is made of pipe, polystyrene, a filament lightbulb, and a plastic lunchbox full of electronics. Really. I didn't note down the cost at the time, but it's significantly less than five hundred dollars... I assume it's also significantly more likely to burn your house down, but that's all part of the fun, right? Science!

The Madlab version was built by the Hacman experts, so it was only fair that we were allowed to get stuck into building the OpenPCR. On paper it says one person can build it in three or four hours: we decided that as a group we could do far better than that, so we tipped the box out and got stuck in:

Anyway, the plan is to see how the OpenPCR stacks up against the Madlab budget version, and then hopefully we can then see how both machines compare to an actual, cost-lots-of-money, proper PCR machine. We've not decided as yet what the criteria for 'best machine' will actually be, but it should be really interesting to see how it all turns out anyway.

Oh, and the BBC's science correspondent turned up too, along with a big camera and a microphone:

I managed to stay out of the firing line as much as possible, but a couple of the guys there made the rookie mistake of sounding knowledgeable and ended up being interviewed. I didn't escape completely though, and ended up explaining the Microbe Map repeatedly down a microphone, probably for the radio. It was pretty nice to see an event like this being covered anyway, I'm not sure entirely how it's all being used, but as soon as I find anything out I'll stick it on here.

There are lots more photos on the Madlab flickr feed, next time we should hopefully have some experiments going and maybe even some idea of how our PCR kit stacks up against expensive kit. For science!

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