This Boston Kickstarter Lets You Read Your Own DNA

by jeeg 5. November 2014 22:35


Imagine being able to read DNA almost instantaneously. You would be able to see the separate genes from each of your parents and create a DNA family tree; test food for E. coli to avoid food poisoning; test your food for GMOs or hidden ingredients.

This kind of at-home gene analysis may seem straight out of Gattaca or X-men, but it's not. A Boston-based startup, called Amplyus, has invented the miniPCR, a small, relatively cheap do-it-yourself DNA copying kit for homes and schools.

Zeke Alvarez Saavedra and Sebastian Kraves launched Thursday a Kickstarter for miniPCR. In the six days since, the project has been a roaring success, garnering almost $40,000 in pledges from more than 120 backers — and there's still 38 days to go. If donations are consistent over that time, Saavedra and Kraves could ultimately raise almost $300,000 of their initial $20,000 goal.

"We were surprised about [the success], to be honest," said Kraves. "We reached our target in 35 hours and almost doubled our target in three or four days.

Kraves and Saavedra studied biology together at the University of Buenos Aires and then went on to pursue doctorates at Harvard and MIT, respectively. They created the miniPCR with the goal of making it easier for students to learn about DNA without high-tech, expensive equipment, as well as to provide alternate, personal machines for scientists, students and researchers in university and lab settings.

Initially, the two creators intended for the miniPCR kits to be mainly used in AP Biology classrooms, to give students the opportunity to do DNA PCR experiments and copying for themselves. Unexpectedly, however, many of the 100 machines they've produced and sold in the past nine months have been to middle school classrooms. In order to cater to this new crowd, Amplyus has produced lesson plans and step-by-step experiments for teachers to use in various classrooms settings.

"We found that middle schoolers really love it," Kraves said. "With older students, they kind of already know what they want to do, but middle schoolers are still really exploratory and fascinated."

If consumers need more than just the machine, Amplyus also produces the "miniPCR DNA Discovery System," which comes with DNA pipetting tools — which, according to Kraves, would cost about $200 on their own — the miniPCR machine and a DNA Electrophoresis and Visualizer.

There are three lab testing and analysis kits available: one to test your "DNA Family Tree," one a "Forensic DNA Crime Lab," and one a "DNA Food Safety Lab." If the Kickstarter reaches $50,000, Knaves and Saavedra plan to create another analysis kit for GMO detection.

The machine also comes with an app, which isn't fully integrated yet and won't read the results of an individual test. What it can do, however, is help set up the experiment and follow what's happening in the machine in real-time. In addition, each user of the app has his or her own interface, so researchers don't have to comb through everyone else's data in order to find their own.

Another plus for users in lab settings? Lab workers don't have to prepare an experiment, walk down to the DNA sequencer and realize that someone else's experiment is going to be taking up the machine for the next five hours. Instead, with miniPCRs, individuals can conduct smaller copying projects at their desks.

The product was even tested, and ultimately purchased, by a private investigator, who used it full-time after his $8,000 machine broke down.

Up until the Kickstarter launched, the cost of a single miniPCR machine was $799, with a discount price of $599 for schools and labs who bought multiple at once. The first 20 Kickstarter backers got the machine for $399, though, and anyone else who wants to contribute can get it for $449. Purchasing all these supplies and a high-tech machine would usually cost around $10,000, which is certainly out of the budget of most schools.

The Kickstarter funds will go toward mass-producing the machines. "We've made the first 100 machines pretty much by ourselves," Kraves said. "What we want to do with the Kickstarter is put it in the hands of a real manufacturing operation, which we've already chosen. It's located just 45 minutes from Boston."

Saavedra and Kraves came up with the concept of the miniPCR when they discussed how they had almost been discouraged from studying biology and DNA in high school and at the undergraduate level because there weren't any opportunities to actually complete experiments on machines that were so expensive. Now, miniPCR might be able to make DNA technology available to all. According to Kraves:

Our lives are very touched by DNA. We live in a society incredibly transformed by DNA technology. I think that, for societal reasons as well as technological reasons, people might want to learn more about DNA technology. ... People are very intrigued by the huge transformation around our understanding of genomes and the ability to manipulate DNA. But they can't get their hands on the technology.

Elise Harmon , BostInno


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