The Gene Hunting Device

Rotifer Anatomy, Bdelloid species
Fluorescence microscopy of Rotifers without (L) and with (R) tracking application. x100 (L) and x50 (L) magnifications approx.

Gene Hunting Device
Gene Hunting Devices in action

The rise of powerful DNA sequencing technology of the 21st Century saw brave men out on sea, trawling through the water in search for lucrative genetic data found in micro-organisms that harbour them.

We are surrounded by microbial seas of its own right, constantly interacting with them in the environment that we live in, whether it be with those found in and on our bodies, on soil, on water and even in the air that we breathe. Many of such microbes are undiscovered, and also with genes with functions that are not yet understood.

Could we start to think about how we could capture microbes – and their accompanying genes – that are found in our urban environment, thereby opening up a possibility of using these genes for personal fulfillment? What type of genes could one catch, and how could they be used in a domestic, DIY and personal context, as opposed to a pharmaceutical and a commercial one?

First Image

Rotifers are microscopic, multicellular, plankton-like animals that are commonly found in gardens, living on thin films of moistures found on mosses and lichens. Such critters have an extraordinary ability to ‘steal’ or ‘capture’ foreign DNA from their environment.

Using hair-like structures found on their heads, rotifers simply ingest the foreign DNA to start a process known as ‘horizontal DNA transfer’ – which allows them to sew-on the newly-acquired DNA into their own genome.

GFP gene3

As a biohacker-designer, I wanted to somehow use this animal’s ability to steal DNA to design a tool to hunt for genes in the urban air. The aim of the exercise was two-fold: Firstly, to demonstrate how we could start designing things that incorporate the skills of microscopic animals, carefully honed over millions of years. And secondly, to explore possibilities of re-packaging nature, to enable us to sense our environment in search for the genes of our dreams.

Plates with growing rotifer sensors
hunting device schematic
Gene Hunting Device Draft Schematic (Illustration by Jae Yeop Kim)

Compound


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SB6 Biobricks Conference 2013, Imperial College
BBC Radio 5 Live Outriders Programme, July 2013