Meet the College Student Whose Homegrown Gene Lab Aims to Hack Human Intimacy

Meet the College Student Whose Homegrown Gene Lab Aims to Hack Human Intimacy
Source: AP
Source: AP

Damien Tsang has the ability to make genes glow. He does it by taking fluorescent genes from jellyfish, using a set of test tubes, petri dishes, a micropipette and a customized Bunsen burner. When he adds the jellyfish genes to bacteria DNA, it glows in the dark. The kit, called GlowGene, acts as a kind of Easy-Bake Oven for genetically modified organisms. Tsang is using it to figure out how to make plants produce better solar energy — and now he wants every aspiring biohacker to help him do it.

This month, Tsang, a 21-year-old biotechnology student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, launched a Kickstarter for GlowGene. Its promise: "Extract genes from other lifeforms and put their DNA inside your cells." 

GlowGene's tools can be found in any high school chemistry class. The kit provides the architecture needed to, essentially, play God. You start with one kind of life, add some DNA to it and turn it into a new organism. 

It's the basic version of how scientists earlier this year added woolly mammoth genes to elephant cells — though this isn't exactly CRISPr/Cas9 technology, the breakthrough biotech being used to splice genetics.

Tsang wants to experiment with synthesizing oxytocin, the "love hormone" responsible for creating intimacy between partners.

"I saw that there was no [starter] equipment or instructions for people wanting to biohack [or] genetic-engineer," Tsang told Mic. "When I first started, I had to rely on knowledge I learned in school and read a lot of molecular biology books. I wish someone could have easily compiled it and made it easy to read, so I am doing that now."

The GlowGene kit's contents.
Source: GlowGene/Kickstarter
Damien Tsang adding DNA to bacteria cells.
Source: Kickstarter

How GlowGene breaks down: The cloning technology used here is about 40 years old. You can isolate a gene from a live cell, like the green fluorescent proteins found in some jellyfish, making it so the single gene can be cloned out. Then, you can cut (using an endonuclease) and paste (using a ligase) that isolated DNA into a vehicle (called a vector). Carry the isolated gene into the cells you're trying to modify — essentially giving the bacteria any DNA traits you want.

Instead of having to identify and pull a gene out of a sequence, Tsang's kit lets you start with the isolated gene and just drop it into whatever you want to modify.

The processes GlowGene lets you experiment with are fairly rudimentary; you don't need a biotechnology degree to use it. Since the genes, like Oxytocin or color pigments, come in neat little packages, all you have to do is add them to the bacterial cells ("Barrys") provided in the kit, then use a Bunsen burner to heat up the agar (that jelly-like substance in Petri dishes) and wait for the new genes be absorbed by the bacteria.

Biohacking human emotions: Tsang wants to experiment with synthesizing oxytocin, the "love hormone," responsible for creating intimacy between partners and a connection between mother and child. However, Tsang warns the synthesized hormone's effects won't be as powerful on humans as they are on lab animals.

Tsang enlisted GeneWorks, an Australian molecular biology company focused on providing research products, to synthesize the oxytocin gene sequence, making it just as easy to add to the bacteria DNA. "GM insulin, Oxytocin [and] human growth hormone can easily be synthesized this way and produced," Tsang said. "They are identical to the human versions."

While the options provided by the kit are fairly straightforward and show very base-level microbiology, the equipment can be used to experiment with much more scientific genetic strains.

"I think this would be really useful for middle school or high school classrooms, or community programs that aren't just for kids but also for their parents," Rachel Speer, a technical writer and molecular biologist at GenScript USA, told Mic. "If people are going to get excited about science because they see something glow, then that's great."

Digital DNA libraries catalogue millions of genes from hundreds of species. There are even physical DNA libraries kept in freezers. GenScript, where Speer works, keeps 40,000 popular lab research genes in stock. If a lab needs a gene quickly and doesn't want to have to clone the gene itself or have another researcher do it and mail the results, GenScript can just send whatever Open Reading Frame (the part of the gene in the genome that gets transcribed into mRNA), or even the full-length genomic sequence, to the researcher in need.

"Researchers can order an off-the-shelf ORF clone for maybe $100 to $400 depending on ... how long it is," Speer told Mic. "If they want a version that includes a mutation, maybe something that would improve an enzyme's function, they can either order a wild-type ORF clone and then do mutagenesis, or they can build their custom gene from scratch using gene synthesis."

More serious young biology dabblers, like the students who participate in the iGEM competition, a synthetic biology event hosted by the International Genetically Engineered Machine foundation, could use it for their own basic modeling and experiments at home. It would work as a base-level kit when studying larger, more complicated things at school.

"Most of the proteins scientists study aren't going to be exciting to people who want to do a craft in their living room," Speer told Mic. "It's only exciting if it glows or produces alcohol or produces a perfume. But there are a lot of genes like that. ... The iGEM competition students are studying more useful synthesis, like genes that fight some kinds of bacteria."

What's next: GlowGene could, if picked up by the right people, become a vehicle for fostering a biohacking community aimed more toward genetics than electronics, tweaking biology and learning more about genetic mutations through very small models they create at home.

"At the moment we're working on bacteria that can produce electricity more effectively than the current Geobacter strain and hopefully try couple it with plants to produce a better solar energy," Tsang told Mic. "Hopefully we can have multiple groups testing parameters at once like a real research team."

If it works the way Tsang wants it to, this could spur the online gatherings of amateur, student and professional biologists all using the same kit to advance scientific research. An online community could host DNA samples, like the iGEM parts library but without a registration fee, contributing to the library and assisting one another in their own projects, like Tsang's own quest for better solar technology. This simple kit could push biology to the next era of biology, one built on a global community of citizen scientists. And it all came from one young scientist's kitchen-counter laboratory.