RCA Biohacking Workshop

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As the news confirming King Richard III’s skeletal discovery beneath a car park in Leicester filtered through, us biohackers above Hoxton car park were busy preparing for a genetic testing of a different kind.

It was a beginning of our very first public Biohacking workshop. It’s aim was to simply open people’s eyes (and mouths) to the world of DIY biology, and guide them through some of the basics of molecular biology and genetic testing procedures, DIY style.

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Our guinea pigs came in the form of students MA. Design Interactions – my former department at the Royal College of Art. In bunches of five to six they came, eager to find out what the fuss was all about, and explore how DIY biology could potentially be communicated through language of design. Over the course of three hours, each group of students were guided by Will, Tom, Simon, Lui and I in what turned out to be a thought-provoking and an engaging session.

The session kicked off with an introductory talk by Simon, covering the ideas behind some of the common DNA manipulation techniques practiced at the Hackspace. This included PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), a technique achieved through a carefully formulated chemicals and an electronically programmed heater. It allows large copies of a specific segment of DNA to be made, that can be visualized using a DNA separation technique called Gel Electrophoresis  – another technique that can be practiced at the space.

Audience participation swiftly followed, which involved gentle scraping and collection of cheek cells through spit. Fortunately, most of the saliva from the students were directed towards the bottom of test tubes! The DNA contained in the cheek cells were then extracted out, which was followed by a demonstration on how to amplify a segment of this DNA using PCR and gel electrophoresis, as mentioned earlier. This was to amplify and check for genes that determined their blood groups.

Correct ways to use pipettes, centrifuges, PCR and gel electrophoresis machines demonstrated during the session as well. Results of our gene tests can be found here:

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The sessions ended somewhat fittingly with dessert, in the form of M&S strawberries. Although the fruits were not subjects of human digestion, household detergents and cleaning alcohol were used – along with bare hands – in order to extract visible strings of DNA from them. Many students managed to produce fine matts of cloudy strawberry DNA that could be seen with a naked eye. A symbolic gesture perhaps, to illustrate the intention of our workshop which was to de-mystify biology, and making it somewhat tangible and visible to the non-biologists.

We hope that the workshop provided an inspiration to participants which may encourage them to start their own personal adventure in biohacking, and beyond.

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