There’s an open secret that every professional scientist knows about lab research. It’s difficult. It’s frustrating. It rarely goes right. The amount of blood, sweat and tears you put into an experiment bears little reflection on whether it will actually succeed.
We learned the hard way that lab work – especially in a DIY setting – consists of a lot of trial and error. The trials are promising, the errors devastating. You make a small mistake with the buffer solutions that keep your samples stable, and days of work can go down the drain. You misplace or accidentally contaminate a tiny drop of liquid while pipetting into a tube that's smaller than a thimble, and your experiment fails. You try different salt concentrations to make the experiment run better, you vary heat and cool cycles for your PCR machine, you test whether a little more of the DNA-copying enzyme might do the trick. You have to improvise and be patient.
Added to that, of course, there's the downside of the cheap supplies and the vintage machinery you use. It’s like making a souffle in a kitchen you’ve never cooked in, using old utensils you’ve never used, and an old oven that may or may not reach the temperature required. You have the correct recipe and the ingredients but you have no idea if the souffle will rise. If it doesn’t, your only option is to start again, add a bit more of an ingredient, whisk the mixture a bit more, or turn an oven dial slightly, and cross your fingers that at some point it will rise.
To make things worse, the makeshift observation room where we looked at our abject failures was the toilet in the Schoneberg office building. It was the only room without windows, which made it the only room dark enough to be able to see any traces of amplified DNA in our gels.
After days and nights of fruitless effort in our overheated office corner, not knowing where the glitch in the system was, our nerves were on edge. Nothing seemed to work. We made countless trips to and from the toilet, staring at countless blank gels, willing a band to appear that never did.
When we had been researching our venture in the United States Kay Aull, one of its pioneer biohackers, had warned us: “There's a lot that can go wrong, and you don't have colleagues who can come to the rescue and explain what your mistake was and what to do about it – you're lonesome warriors.” In our case, we tried not to think of the money wasted on failed experiments, or the fact that our regular daytime jobs which paid the rent were taking a hit because the experiments had become an obsession.
But after many efforts something magical happened. Two of us were locked in a toilet in the usual fashion, both looking at a gel, like we had done a dozen times before, weakly hoping that this time we would be able to see a trace of DNA. Then it appeared: an orange band. It was pale at first, a small, rectangular glowing band that told us there was DNA within it. It had been copied a million-fold in our second-hand PCR machine saved from the tip, separated from all the other gunk by running the sample in a gel, and we could see it thanks to the “electric item” that the customs people had quizzed us about. All the effort, work, frustration and expenses of the last couple of months were forgotten in a single, triumphant moment. We had done it. We could officially say we were biohackers.