It’s amazing what you can buy on eBay nowadays. Scan down the main categories, past Antiques, Art, Baby and Books, Comics & Magazines, and you’ll find the Business, Office & Industrial section. Click on it and you will see various subcategories, including one for Medical/Lab Equipment. This, as you’ll discover, is a biohacker’s dream world.
Almost everything you need to run a basic do-it-yourself biology lab is up for grabs. Need a centrifuge to separate your DNA from cellular junk? Take your pick of 20. How about a lightbox to illuminate your DNA fragments? No problem. It is the same for the scales you need to weigh minuscule amounts of chemicals; pipettes, pipette-tips, and plastic tubes to handle and dispense tiny amounts of liquids; and Bunsen burners (or, in our case, a much cheaper camping gas burner) to sterilise equipment.
Other biohackers had told us that eBay was like this, but it wasn’t until we began to look for everything on our shopping list for our own lab that we believed them.
The biggest piece of machinery on the list was the PCR machine, also known as a thermocycler. It’s essentially a souped-up water bath, but it enables an indispensable technique worthy of a Nobel prize. Invented by Kary Mullis in 1983, the Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR for short, amplifies genetic material quickly and reliably, creating up to one billion times the DNA you started out with. It’s the technique used by forensic teams to get evidence from crime scenes, by lawyers for paternity tests, and – we hoped – by a group of German journalists to successfully carry out genetic experiments.
While chatting with one seller about some technical details, we learned he had another one that he found at his university waste tip. Twenty years ago the machine would have cost a professional lab as much as a home in the Berlin suburbs. We agreed to take it together with a power supply unit for 320 euros.
The amazing thing was that no one asked any questions during our shopping spree. True, we did receive a suspicious look from the person behind the pharmacy counter when we wanted to buy a bottle of 100% alcohol. But once we assured her that it was for genetic experiments rather than drinking, she was happy to hand over the big brown glass bottle.
We were also held up by customs when we tried to bring in a small lightbox that helps to illuminate DNA fragments. We tried several times to explain what biohacking was and how we planned to use the machine, but the customs officers didn’t seem to believe that anyone would – or could – set up a genetics lab in their kitchen. Exasperated, one officer interrupted another fruitless attempt to explain what the machines did. “So, it's something for computers?” she asked. Her male colleague, clearly tired of the conversation, cited a procedure concerning items with a value of no more than 250 euros.
“Is it something electrical?” he asked. “Er... it does need electricity, yes,” we replied. With that, he waved us through.
This completed our lab list: total cost, including the chemicals and biological materials needed, was 3,500 Euros and 51 cents. It's a lot of money, but splitting the cost between us, we paid less for a working lab than the cost of an Apple laptop each.
As our partners weren’t keen on using any of this stuff at home, we decided to build the lab in our office in the Schoneberg district of Berlin. We got strange looks from those in the neighbouring offices, who were used to journalist's long phone calls but not the whirrs and beeps from PCR machines or centrifuges.
Once we had the equipment assembled, the worries began. We had vague memories of the practicals we had to do in our university biology classes – some good, but mainly bad, a litany of failures and frustrations. Some of the procedures we were about to try in our improvised lab were exactly those kinds of experiments. The only difference was that this time we could not count on a supervisor or skilled colleague to help us. We had to rely on our faded memories of lab work and on internet sources to help us whenever we got stuck. We had a lot of questions. Would we be able to isolate DNA? Would we amplify genes with a machine salvaged from the trash? Would even the simplest experiments be beyond our meagre skills? Would we join the legions of people who bought a surfboard but never really rode a wave, or who bought a guitar and never got beyond “Country Roads”?