Make culture: Biopunks tackling code of life

No longer confined to nuts and volts, the do-it-yourself ethic has made its way to biology. At Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder is running a series on experimenters working with the code of life, and kicks it off with this description of an attempt to develop a simple melamine test that would give Chinese mothers an inexpensive way to test for the substance in baby formula.

The 'melaminometer,' as Patterson and her collaborators called their hack, ends up sounding oddly simple for a radical feat of genetic engineering. Jack the genes for a melamine-sensitive protein into the yogurt bacteria. Concoct a chemical trigger that sets off the jellyfish gene. Suddenly you have a $1 vial into which the mother in China adds a few drops of formula. If there's melamine, it glows green. Voila: A user-friendly, consumer-grade detector that enables crowdsourced safety monitoring of the world's food supply. Someone call Bill and Melinda Gates.

So why two years later does the melaminometer remain just an idea? From the OpenWetWare wiki tracking the effort: 'This project has not moved forward due to inability for synthetic biology labs to scope engineering of a suitable detector as proposed by this design. Thus, this project is currently vaporware, until technology can catch up to the proposed genetic circuit.' In other words, the engineering for the last few parts, like so much else in modern biology, is just too damn hard right now.

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Wayne