Skunkworks Bioengineering — Prerequisites to Success?

Posted by – November 13, 2008

“Despite all the support and money evident in the projects, there is absolutely no reason this work could not be done in a garage. And all of the parts for these projects are now available from the Registry.” Rob Carlson, iGEM 2008: Surprise — The Future is Here Already, Nov 2008.

The question which should be posed is:

  • What does it really take to actually do this in a garage?

Of course I’m interested in the answer.  I actually want to do this in my garage.

(Let’s ignore the fact for a moment, that many of the iGEM competition projects don’t generate experimental results due to lack of time in the schedule, thus actual project results don’t mirror the project prospectus.)

Here is my short list of what is required:

  • Education (all at university level)
  • Experience
    • 1 year of industry or grad-level engineering lab research & design
    • 1 year of wet lab in synthesis
    • 2 more years of wet lab in synthesis if it’s desired to have a high probability of success on the project (see my SB4.0 notes for where this came from)
  • Equipment
    • Most lab equipment is generally unnecessary, since significant work can be outsourced.
    • Thermocycler
    • Incubator
    • Centrifuge
    • Glassware
    • Example setup: See Making a Biological Counter, Katherine Aull, 2008 (Home bio-lab created for under $500.)
    • Laptop or desktop computer
    • Internet connection
  • Capital
    • About $10k to $20k cash (?) to throw at a problem for outsourced labor, materials, and equipment (this cost decreases on a yearly basis).
  • Time (Work effort)
    • Depends on experience, on the scope of the problem, on project feasibility — of course.
    • 4 to 7 man-months to either obtain a working prototype or scrap the project.

Although some student members of iGEM teams are random majors such as economics or music, somehow I’m not sure they qualify towards the “anyone can do this” mantra.  Of the iGEM competition teams who placed well for their work, all of the members were 3rd year or 4th year undergrads or higher.  The issue isn’t the equipment or ability to outsource — it’s the human capital, the mind-matter, that counts: education and experience.  (Which, in the “I want to DIY my Bio!” crowd, is a rare find.)

With all that covered, it seems anyone can have their very own glowing bacteria.

“Biology is hard, and expensive, and most people trained enough to make a go of it have a lab already — one that pays them to work.”   — Katherine Aull (see above ref.)

3 Comments on Skunkworks Bioengineering — Prerequisites to Success?

  1. Rob Carlson says:

    Biology may be hard, but frankly for many people so are physics and basic circuit design and analysis (having taught these courses many times over the years). And I have watched many people who fare poorly at basic physics and engineering excel at the wet bench. Dunno why that is, but it seems to work both ways. Many physics and engineering students just flail around in biology classes.

    I don’t have any formal biology training — no laboratory courses — and everything I know how to do at the bench I picked up by watching somebody else or by reading a recipe.

    What it *really* takes is just a willingness to try anything, and to put up with failure.

    – Rob

  2. Yes – motivation is always #1. Basically most pro’s in the field currently mirror that comment: “no formal biology training .. picked it up on the way.”

    Recently found this web presentation, linked from UCB iGEM 2008 team wiki.

    “What Foundational Knowledge is Required for Scientific Inquiry in Synthetic Biology?”

    The conclusion was that basically anyone who finishes the typical Bio1A class is ready to go.

    The following link at the Anderson Lab tutorials gives the “bare bones” background tutorials —

    The rapidly reducing cost of experimentation is the exciting part. Iterating over many experiments is fine, it’s how man built airplanes and learned to fly– as long as the cost of each experiment isn’t prohibitive, trial & error prototyping allows rapid progress to be made through trial & error. In computer science, the current trendy term for this is “extreme programming (XP)” or “agile development”. In computer science, this works great, because the cost of each experiment ($$$) is basically zero.

  3. Matt says:


    I am curious what you are actually trying to do… You list is far too general for one thing. Is there a particular project that you are building up to…?