Microbes, molluscs and machine

20th July, and it was time for another DIYBio meeting. I was looking forward to the meeting immensely because I had heard that quite a lot of progress had been made by some of the teams, and I was really interested in finding out what they had been up to.

Unfortunately not all the news was good. Although a sterling effort was made by Team Snail, the first batch of snails that we brought into Madlab did not fare very well and had sadly expired during the month. A second set had already been introduced to the tank, and we discussed how we might help them survive a bit better this time around. David had done a lot of excellent research, and discovered that our snails are Malaysian Trumpet Snails. They like to burrow, so we gave them some sand for the bottom of the tank. They also thrive best at relatively high temperatures (compared to Madlab) so we discussed obtaining a water heater to maintain the tank at around 25 degrees. We had a very interesting presentation on the snails, including the fascinating fact that while the females can reproduce without mating, the offspring are not identical clones but have variation because the mother snails combine two of their gametes (eggs), each of which contain a random selection of their gene ‘alleles’ – in effect having sex with themselves!

Adding some sand

After a diversion in the conversation in which heated debate arose over whether bees or ants are better, we held a short silence for the first batch of snails. Then it was time to move on and hear what Team Kit had been up to…

We were impressed to learn that the construction of a PCR machine (for undertaking thermal cycling and DNA amplification), is already well on the way. Alex gave us a great presentation on how he approached the problem, initial exploration of a few ideas which turned out to be dead ends, and his most recent efforts which led to the building of a ‘lightbulb PCR’ set-up. He then brought out the prototype, which isn’t completely finished but is already able to show the heating and cooling that forms the basis of how PCR works. Alex and others from the HACman group are planning to continue work on the equipment and hope to have a working PCR machine, gel box and centrifuge for the next meeting so that we can start planning some experiments to test these homemade versions against commercial ones at the university. The question was raised as to whether we should also think about developing our own chemical reagents for the experiments, but it was decided that we would test the home-made equipment first before varying other aspects of the experiments, so that we can clearly see where the differences lie. Dr Patricia Linton, a molecular biologist at MMU, has also offered to come to the next meeting and give a presentation about these techniques.

PCR in progress

Team microbe (dealing with the microbe map data) had been lagging a little bit behind the other groups, mainly because some of the people who wanted to be involved hadn’t been able to make it to previous meetings. However we kick-started it with a push to get all the data into a single spreadsheet, and the team made a plan to start doing some visualising of this over the next few weeks. The discussion of this will mainly happen on the mailing list, so if you’re interested in getting involved make sure you’re signed up! The data will be held privately for now, so that we can ‘have first go’ with it before sending it out to be generally available. However we do plan to release it eventually.

For the final ‘formal’ part of the meeting, we had a discussion around genetically modified foods, prompted by a recent news item about an attack by Greenpeace on some GM wheat. We all agreed that as a protest it wasn’t a particularly well thought out one, because these particular crops were being grown for experimental purposes by a research group. The consensus seemed to be that we need to carefully consider the risks of genetic modification, but that since selective breeding has been happening for centuries it is probably not in itself a necessarily risky practice. However scientists need to fully understand what genes do and how they interact before they alter them, and this is something that still might not be the case.

Enter the Data

After that, people got to work on projects – putting data in the microbe map, sand in the snail tank and discussing improvements to the PCR machine. All too soon the meeting was over for another month. But it sounds like the 31st August will be a busy evening!

Written by Naomi Jacobs

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