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Amateurs explore their genomes via DNA cocktail

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / April 26, 2010

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SOMERVILLE — With contact lens solution, a splash of rum, a drop of dish soap, and several mouthfuls of spit swirled in small white cups, a dozen scientific amateurs watched yesterday as their DNA formed a gooey clump.

“This is my favorite protocol for extracting DNA — mostly because it seems like a magic trick,’’ said Mackenzie Cowell, an amateur scientist who was leading a hands-on workshop to show that, with simple kitchen equipment and procedures, anyone can begin to examine his or her genetic material.

Families, people looking to set up their own home labs, and professional scientists came yesterday to a studio space called Sprout Inc., where Cowell — part of a group called DIYbio that seeks to bring biology into the sphere of amateurs — led them through a simple experiment. First, attendees extracted their DNA two ways; then they chose one of two genes to isolate and make millions of copies of, which could then be sequenced by professionals.

Ultimately, Cowell and DIYbio hope to create safe ways for citizen scientists to engage in cutting-edge biology, following the path of the personal computer industry, which was shaped and pushed forward by home-brewed technology and entrepreneurs working in their garages.

But the main point of the weekend workshop — part of the ongoing Cambridge Science Festival — was to demystify modern biology.

“It’s totally awesome. It means people can start to understand what’s going on — it’s bringing everything back to basics and making stuff a little less intimidating,’’ said Anna Croft, a research scientist at MIT who attended the event.

First, Cowell got the group to work up the necessary amount of spit by showing them a picture of a grilling steak. The participants filled the bottom of a cup with saliva, then added some contact lens solution, two drops of protein cleaner for contact lenses, a drop of soap, and a slosh of Bacardi 151, a high-proof alcohol. This low-tech cocktail breaks open the cells and causes the DNA to form thin strands in the liquid.

Participants removed the DNA from the solution by wrapping the strand around a toothpick and inserting it into a tube.

Then, they tried a second technique. They swabbed the insides of their cheeks for a minute and then wiped the sample into a small tube filled with a resin and boiled it to complete DNA extraction.

The participants got a quick primer on genetics, and the option to add ingredients to their DNA that would allow them to make many copies of a portion of one of two genes.

One of the genes is responsible for the ability to taste a bitter chemical, and the other is a gene known to be involved in risk for breast cancer. Cowell was quick to note that neither result would give enough information to be used for medical purposes, and should be viewed just as an experiment.

The idea, he said, was to allow people to get a little more in touch with their genomes. Tomorrow he plans to get the samples sequenced, and give people the results.

Tinsley Galyean, a sophomore at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, persuaded her father to attend the workshop, after her interest was sparked by biology class.

“We did a genetics unit, studying what happened with the human genome project . . . just how the technology has been developing over the past couple years,’’ Galyean said. “We still have a long way to go.’’

Galyean knows that she cannot taste the bitter chemical, so the experiment will let her search for which particular mutation is responsible.

Andy Andres, who teaches introductory biology at Boston University’s College of General Studies, said that he and his three children showed up because he was interested in finding new ways to engage his students, who are not majoring in the topic.

“I want to use students’ intrinsic interest in themselves,’’ Andres said, “to interest them in science.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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