Humankind has long sought to truly understand the building blocks of life and to be able to manipulate them for its own purposes, and genetics is an area of intense research and development with potentially huge rewards for those who make significant advances.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a key technique employed in genetics whereby small pieces of DNA are amplified by several orders of magnitude. This is fundamental to processes such as DNA cloning and sequencing, the analysis of genes for hereditary and infectious diseases, and to identify genetic fingerprints. The reaction requires a piece of specialist laboratory apparatus which can accurately control and cycle the temperature of DNA samples, and these are typically expensive, costing thousands of pounds. But this changed with the arrival of OpenPCR, a personal PCR machine that is available as a kit for $599 and with a design that has been made available under the GPL v3 licence.
Assembling the kit is quoted as taking around five hours, small hex wrenches are included and the only additional tools required are screwdrivers and pliers. The machine's enclosure is made from laser cut wood and snaps together, with brackets, nuts, bolts and various other simple fittings being provided. Temperature control is achieved via a ceramic Peltier device and large heatsink of the sort found in a desktop computer. A PC power supply provides the DC current for a fan, the Peltier and control electronics. Like all good open source projects OpenPCR stands on the shoulders of giants, and makes use of an Arduino for control and to provide a USB interface. This in turn plugs into a custom Arduino shield which provides connections for the power supply, Peltier, temperature sensors and an LCD display. The shield and a “PCR block” with sample wells being the only components which could be considered to be specialist.
The completed OpenPCR machine can hold up to 16 sample tubes and the temperature of these can be cycled from 10°C to100°C, with a ramp rate of 1°C/second and an accuracy of 0.5°C. Since control is via an attached PC complex, “thermocycler protocols” can be programmed, with a virtually unlimited memory for storing the configuration of temperature steps and their cycling.
The OpenPCR blog suggests that the machine could be used to expose fraud at a sushi restaurant, diagnose diseases such as HIV and H1N1, or to explore your own genome. But this is only the beginning as far as possible applications are concerned, and as they succinctly put it, “DNA is now DIY”. Now that such equipment is becoming affordable it should come as no surprise that intrepid amateurs are getting in on the action, and the motivations of these “bio-hackers” are varied, ranging from doing it for fun and as a hobby, to starting a business in the hope of making a highly profitable breakthrough.
Arduino is without a doubt the poster child of the open source hardware movement and its versatility, low cost and increasingly widespread availability will help to drive the movement mainstream in a manner similar to the way Linux did with open source software. Its ecosystem of derivative, compatible and extending technologies demonstrate how the open source principle of standing on the shoulders of giants can be mapped onto hardware development. This is further exemplified by projects such as RepRap and OpenPCR which in turn make use of Arduino for their control electronics.
As RepRap makes low cost desktop manufacturing a reality and inches towards being able to self-replicate, it hints at a future that would not be out of place in a science fiction novel – where designs are developed online, shared in an instant and produced locally at the push of a button, and with machines that are able to replicate and upgrade themselves.
The Global Village Construction Set offers promise to those who, for whatever reason, desire to live off-grid and be technologically self-sufficient, and has potential for use by developing nations and in disaster relief. With its novel industrial ecology for things such as materials production, manufacture and machine relationships, it opens up exciting possibilities for unprecedented scaling and efficiency in hardware: technology is optimised for reuse, and recycling is taken to the point where closed-loop manufacturing becomes a possibility and there is minimal waste and environmental impact.
OpenCores and OpenPCR have demonstrated that even areas of technology such as chip design and genetics, which many might consider to be the reserve of large organisations with deep pockets, are not off-limits to resourceful communities of interest and are within the grasp of those with very modest budgets.
Finally, it is important to note that these projects are real, they exist and most of them have been around for some years. This is not about the future – it's about what's happening right now, bubbling away just under the surface, and with the potential to change our relationship with technology, our lives or even the world.
Andrew Back (@9600) originally trained as an electronics engineer and first used Linux in the mid-90s. He's since worked at BT's open source innovation unit, Osmosoft, founded the Open Source Hardware User Group , and more recently co-founded SolderPad – a place to collaborate on electronic design.
Image credit: Article header includes image courtesy of NASA Visible Earth