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Portability and Accessibility: The Future of SynBio

By Aakriti Jain

PLOS Synthetic Biology Community Editor

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about open science, citizen science, interdisciplinary science, do-it-yourself science, and much more. But the more I read, the more I question: how can the average citizen start amplifying their DNA in their garages if the cost of even the most inexpensive PCR machines can start at up to a whopping $2000? Availability of tools is almost more important than the idea in realizing the dream of making biology accessible to all.

Enter Zeke Alvarez, who I had the opportunity to speak with about his newest venture, and Sebastian Kraves of miniPCR. Alvarez, a geneticist who received his PhD from MIT, and Kraves, a molecular neurobiologist who received his PhD from Harvard, joined forces to create the miniPCR machine. The project was a part of the MassChallenge accelerator, which houses 128 teams each year for an intensive four-month program with talks, seminars, and a boot camp. The accelerator allowed Alvarez and Kraves to have the space, equipment, and mentorship on running a business that they needed in order to take their company to the next level. With a successful Kickstarter campaign, miniPCR has been able to take their technology to the market.

An inside and outside look of the miniPCR thermocycling block.
An inside and outside look of the miniPCR thermocycling block.

Kraves and Alvarez had to work around a $3 billion PCR market filled with patents for heated lids, gradients, and block design, in order to create the miniPCR. In comparison to regular PCR machines, the miniPCR only costs $400-800, depending on the size of the purchase order. Starting from a simple idea of creating a PCR machine that can carry out the most basic functions, Alvarez and Kraves began in a garage, much like many innovative companies these days. Currently, they are targeting schools and colleges for education purposes, but the possibilities for such a tool could be practically limitless. In fact, NASA bought two of these miniPCR machines to take the International Space Station!

This system is perfect for schools. Right off the bat, it is an order of magnitude less expensive than regular PCR machines. Of course, this comes with many limitations. For example, there is no function for gradient PCR, the block doesn’t go lower than 4° C, there is no real-time PCR functionality, and the number of samples is limited to just eight. However, the ease of use and portability makes the miniPCR the perfect tool for science educators and citizen scientists, though it could be a good backup for academic or industrial research, as well. The kit comes with easy to use software (which is available for your personal laptop as well as your cell phone), to keep track of your PCR reaction, create a new program, and more. This can allow teachers to communicate directions and experimental methods effectively, as well as allow an amateur in biology easily weave through the process of making simple PCR reactions.

MiniPCR block connected to a laptop with an interactive and easy to use application. This application is also available for phones.
MiniPCR block connected to a laptop with an interactive and easy to use application. This application is also available for phones.

Of course, the miniPCR machine isn’t the only of its kind. Most notably, the openPCR is another open source PCR machine. The only caveat with the openPCR system is that you have to build the entire machine on your own. The kit doesn’t come with a premade machine; however, this can be of value to some, who are yearning to learn the inner workings of a thermocycler.

Another is the bento-lab, which takes portable biology a step further and consists not only a PCR machine, but also a centrifuge and a gel electrophoresis utility, all with a footprint the size of an A4 sheet of paper. This is a stand-alone system to really kick start any molecular biology or synthetic biology project. Bento-lab was in fact started as the Darwin Toolbox by the UCL iGEM 2013 team! This technology has recently been launched for early adopters, but holds considerable promise for DIY-biologists and citizen scientists of the future.


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