Bio hacking: Of glowing algae and bio reactors

Bio Hacking, Synthetic Biology, Genetic modification and such terms are something I’ve only heard in the newspapers until a few weeks back, when the Makers asylum Mumbai announced an event.

Yesterday was the first meetup for this exotic sounding vertical and I attended it simply to see what was going on, this was something new to me plus Keenan had said something about making something and I can not say no to make a thing.

Meetup

Sunday evening, 8 person in a circle, and I was transfixed. Keenan and Palak introduced us to terms like Wet Labs, and lab on a chip and bio mass, and glowing algae.

Turns out that this genetic modification stuff which we had had a glimmer of in school is not some heavy rocket science; its not exactly easy stuff, but it is definitely within a motivated persons reach. Keenan seems sure that a maker space like the makers asylum could easily house the equipment required for synthetic biology. All that is needed are makers (oh dear where will we find those!!) and fiddlers(hahahaha of which we have no dearth)

The meetup quickly devolved into a free for all with ideas and counter ideas flying around and plans being made and futures being discussed. But finally, when the dust had settled we had a plan

Action points

  • Team 1: maker team – Build a bio reactor
  • Team 2: ideation team (otherwise called tinkerers and dreamers), source the algae and lets make some bio fuel

Bio reactor

Why

A bio reactor is apparently the first and most basic reactor of all things “bio hacked”. This is where the modified algae gets to grow, replicate and provide the researcher with a tangible outcome of all his tinkering. Lets say the researcher has managed to get a gene from a cuttlefish(which allows it to glow) and has managed to somehow (wet lab) splice it into the DNA stand of an algae. He needs to see if it really works. here is where the bio reactor is used, the bio reactor provides optimum condition for the algae to grow and multiply and thereby “shine”. If it shines, the reasearcher can go out for a drink, if it doesnt then its back to the drawing board for the poor sucker.

What

A bioreactor happens to be simplicity itself. remember your fishtank, and the green sludge that coated the glass if you didnt clean it when mom told you too. Well that’s algae on the glass, and that fish tank is nothing but a bio reactor. It encouraged the growth of the algae. Of course this is not very efficient. a more efficient reactor would be where the maximum number of algae get exposed to the maximum amount of nutrients and sunlight to grow at their maximum rate.

How

Hence a bioreactor is nothing but a reservoir of water with algae culture(a tiny amount of algae). This water is run into thin pipes, which maximise the amount of cells being exposed to sunlight or LEDs. After the exposure cycle is over the water in the pipes is pumped back into the tank, while the next batch is pumped into the pipes.

 

Eventually the algae water mix grows into this thick dark green mass which is “harvested” and somehow converted to bio fuel. This is done in a fermenter which is next on the list of things to make.
The fuel can then be poured into the RC cars at the asylum and we can have a matchup.

If this is successful, we will go on to growing glowing algae. Hahaha, imagine painting that on a few walls during the rains.

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