Philipp Boeing - A lab for everyone

Imagine all the kit you need to start your own molecular biology lab, packed down into the size of a laptop bag and perfectly portable.
06 June 2016

Interview with 

Philipp Boeing, Bento Labs


Kat - Imagine all the kit you need to start your very own molecular biology lab, packed down into the size of a laptop bag and perfectly portable. This dream is now becoming a reality thanks to the work of Philipp Boeing and his Kickstarter-funded project, Bento Lab. 

Philipp - Bento is this Japanese packed lunch. But yeah, it has that kind of modular look and we like the idea of it connoting portability. It has three or four essential components. The heart is kind of the centrifuge because it's in the middle and it's a pretty powerful small mini centrifuge that you can use to extract DNA from cells for example. And then maybe the most important tool is the PCR machine which is a copy machine for DNA. It's a thermal cycler so it's a block of metal where you can put tubes in and you can programme the temperature very accurately and make cyclic programmes. And then there is a gel electrophoresis chamber with a blue light transilluminator. Now, that's a pretty big word, but basically, it's a little box where you can separate DNA fragments by size or sort them and you can visualise them, so you can make them fluoresce. So you get kind of a bar code image of lines that are actually fragments of DNA of different sizes, and that can tell you a lot of information about the sample.

Kat - Basically, you can purify DNA from a sample tissue, a sample of cells. You can copy it, you can make lots and lots of bits of the bit you're interested in, and then you can see it. I mean, that is pretty much what I spent my PhD doing.

Philipp - Yeah. So now, you can...

Kat - I could've done it all in my bedroom.

Philipp - Yeah, exactly.

Kat - And when it comes to some of the more advanced DNA analysis techniques, here, we talk a lot about gene sequencing or being able to cut up bits of DNA and stick them together. Is it possible to do those kinds of techniques with this setup?

Philipp - We always thought of it as a generic laboratory. Just as you can run many pieces of software on a computer, we wanted you to run many kind of different experiments on this thing. Of course, a lot of the times, it depends on the enzymes that you have and the reagents that you have, these are chemicals that you use to interact with the DNA. There's no reason why you can't for example put two pieces of DNA together and use gel electrophoresis to confirm that for example within Bento lab. So, especially also if you have other tools or you're part of Citizen Science Laboratory, it really slots into other experiments that you can do.

Kat - What about if I wanted to read the DNA sequence of a piece of a DNA?

Philipp - Bento Lab is not a sequencer. That's a much more advance kind of technology but you can work with the tool like the MinION for example which is this USB-sized nanopore sequencer, very kind of advanced, not quite cheap. So I think one experiment costs you like, one of those flow cells costs 1,000 pounds so maybe a little bit out of the reach, but you can also use external sequencing services. In any case, you'll need a tool like Bento Lab to prepare the sample - centrifuge, PCR to prepare a sample and then process it further. So, it's not very expensive to then send a short read out to a sequencing service in a few days get an email it back with the sequence.

Kat - Who do you see using it? who's your target market for this?

Philipp - Well, we have a couple of different ambitions for it. Of course, it's great to have essentially a mini laboratory that's quite affordable and easy to take into the field for example. So a lot of scientists are interested in that. A lot of teachers, they're interested in actually being able to demo or do these experiments with their students in classrooms or in teaching labs in universities. So that's great. We are really driven by movements like the maker movement in electronics and computing, things like Raspberry Pi, things like Arduino. So we do have an ambition that we can have a nice active community of citizens from all walks of life that are doing different projects. There is right now in terms of beta testers a group of pensioners in Wales that are using a Bento Lab setup to analyse different mushroom fungi samples all over Pembrokeshire. There's a seasoned scientist in Switzerland who tests the genetics of yeast found in beer to generate a genetics of taste map. Essentially tests, extracts yeast DNA from beer and looks at the genetics of that yeast and sees how it relates to the taste. So, it's a really great setup for him to drink a lot of beer on his job. But also for me it's kind of a textbook example of, it's a serious scientific project, but it's something that you wouldn't really usually fund or that wouldn't really usually be done if those tools weren't accessible. It's something that's really interesting to so many people. So, that's a project that we really like. So we kind of like all these slightly more - different hobbyists approaches to doing science and we want to have - we want to encourage that kind of community.

Kat - When you say the idea of a lab like this and maybe I've just got a bit of a twisted mind, but I think I could start taking DNA samples from people and testing them. I could work out, is my dad really my dad? Is there a risk that people might start doing that?

Philipp - There's a risk like this already. If you had that kind of ambition which I don't think you have, but if you did have that...

Kat - My dad is definitely my dad.

Philipp - See, there you are. It's always good to trust your parents first of all. But if you really had that ambition, I mean obviously, there's already services that you could use. You have to sign a legal waiver but I guess you already passed that point in this scenario. But even if so, if you really want this equipment, you can get second-hand equipment off eBay. It's going to be more expensive. Not going to mean really it's nice to use but if someone has nefarious ideas of what to do with this equipment, they can do that already. What we want to do therefore is we do want to encourage the science but we also want to raise the kind of maturity of the conversation. So, for most people who are starting for the first time with Bento Lab, they're getting a starter kit with all the reagents and bits and bobs to get started. We really embed that in a context of not just understanding the scientific processes and the kind of craft that goes into it, but also the legal responsibility, the bioethics side of things, understanding how to interpret a result, and how to contextualise it. so not just, "Oh, I found this gene." But actually, what does that mean and what are the consequences?

Kat - What would you hope for if many, many people do get a hands on the Bento Lab and start doing science with it?

Philipp - Well, I think it's really hard to foresee the future and there are many examples of people getting that wrong. I think there are some clear short term examples. So, for one thing, what I would like to see is more people knowing about their genes and genetics as a whole. And also, not just knowing, "Okay, I have genes for this and that like 23andMe" but also, knowing what they can know from that and what they can't know from that. So, it's not just about being able to do more genetics testing but also, being able to understand that result in a context. So we do want to kind of make that a little bit more intellectually serious. We come from the synthetic biology community and those communities. Bento Lab is kind of a start for us, but we do want, just like in software engineering, what's interesting there is that's not just big companies and academics can write software but so many people write software. And so, you can have a very specific app on your iPhone that was made by someone who had exactly the problem that you had. In biology and biotechnology, it's not like that. You really have to have a lot of money and a lot of expertise to be able to do any interesting project. And so, I think what's already happening with the users of Bento Lab is that we're starting to use DNA and genetic technology for much more interesting smaller scale projects like this BeerDeCoded project. So we hope to encourage projects of that kind of scale.

Kat - What are the things could I do if I had one?

Philipp - I mean for sure, Bento Lab right now is mostly about DNA analysis. Unless you have access to other tools and then of course, it just replaces part of your normal lab setup and you can do anything that you can do in a molecular biology lab. I think what would be very interesting is starting to have this community of people who do distributed projects. So, it's not just you doing a project in your garden for example but maybe other people doing a similar project in their gardens in India, in South America, and comparing that. So I think there's a lot of potential for things like ecology and biodiversity studies. I mean also again, I have to come back to this PC analogy but what was interesting there was not like Apple and Microsoft didn't come up with the first examples of what really drive PC adoption. That was for example business people who came up with the idea of Excel. Suddenly, everyone had to have a computer. And so, I think I'm very interested in what happens when people of certain needs maybe in agriculture or healthtech or so on, find out how they can use this because suddenly the technology becomes so available and suddenly every farmer needs one because they found out how to do something with their soil or analyse something with their soil for example that's really relevant.

Kat - I can see a really interesting application in the developing world when you're thinking about tracking outbreaks of diseases like Zika or Ebola to have something that effectively fits in a laptop bag that you can take around and looks very sturdy.

Philipp - There's a lot of interest now also with this new rapid sequencing technology to do these things right in the field. People have always done, taking a sample and get it sequenced but it usually takes 2 or 3 weeks turnaround time because they have to send it to a lab in Europe or the States. By the time it comes back, the information is kind of useless.

Kat - And the person is dead or something.

Philipp - Yeah, but also because they want to do it for epidemiology. That way, they can really trace, "Okay, this new Ebola sequence relates to all these other Ebola cases" and they can really tell how it spreads and when a new strain emerges. So there's an interest for that but it's really difficult and risky, and expensive to bring this lab into those places. So, with Bento Lab, that's definitely much cheaper, much more robust and it's a much smaller footprint. So there's definitely interest in that. We don't market Bento Lab as a medical product, but in this case, it's really a research tool. We have a lot of interest in that area. We're doing some tests and exploring that. It would be really great to see it had such a use.

Kat - Philipp Boeing of Bento Lab. And if you fancy getting your hands dirty with your very own laptop-sized lab, visit their website - 


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