Gift Idea: Teach Yourself and Your Kids to Be Genetic Engineers

The phrase “genetic engineering” can sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. With the help of Amino Labs, an Alberta-based startup, you can try your hand at genetic engineering without prior knowledge or training.

Amino Labs is a STEM education company that offers hands-on learning for students and non-scientists. Their goal is to make genetic engineering easier and more accessible to everybody. With Amino, you don’t need a degree in biology to be a genetic engineer—you just need to have a passion and curiosity for science.

You may recognize the names of their founders, Julie Legault and Justin Pahara. Both of them are big supporters of the geekStarter program and the Alberta synthetic biology community. Legault has an impressive background in art, design, and engineering: an MA from the Royal College of Art (UK) and two degrees in design technology and art from Concordia University (Montreal). She also has an MS from the MIT Media Lab, where she first fell in love with the idea of programming with biology. It was through these hands-on experiences that she got the inspiration to start Amino Labs.

Legault’s background compliments Pahara’s very well—he’s a synthetic biologist and a Biosecurity Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, not to mention a former iGEM student from the University of Alberta. Together, they work on making biology education safe, fun, and accessible from their lab/farm just outside of Lethbridge.

Playing with DNA

You know those science kits in toy stores where you can build electronic circuits and robots? There are so many kits that teach chemistry, astronomy, geology, physics, and electronics. 

Not going to lie, I’m pretty tempted to get this on Boxing Day.

Why not biology—or, more specifically—synthetic biology?

Amino Labs does just that. Their flagship product is a portable device called the DNA Playground that lets you heat, cool, and incubate your experiments in a single, friendly-looking unit.

Brightly coloured, sturdy construction, and fully Canadian. What more can you ask for?

The DNA Playground isn’t absolutely necessary, however. Amino has prepackaged kits like the Canvas Kit and Engineer-it Kit that let you do experiments with bacteria at home without special equipment. Everything is already measured out for you, so all you have to do is mix a few things here, spread a few things there, and then wait for your results.

It’s All in the Manual

The Amino team also recently published their first textbook, Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero: The Beginner’s Guide to Programming Bacteria. I got my hands on a copy during Black Friday, which also came with a bonus Canvas Kit (which I will review in a future post.)

It’s a comprehensive companion to the Amino kits. Unlike many other textbooks, this one guides you through the experiment first, before teaching you the theory. That way, you get a chance to jump straight into the science before learning the principles that underlie it.

The topics and experiments get progressively more complex with each chapter, introducing new concepts that build on past ones. The educational material is surprisingly deeper than I expected, but it doesn’t feel that way when you read it. The text maintains its friendly and helpful tone so you never feel overwhelmed by the material.

They also have really cute diagrams.

(Fun fact: to ensure accessibility for their target audience, Amino actually got their target audience to edit the book. Both of the editors in the book are still in junior high. Imagine putting that on your resume.)

Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero is highly recommended, but optional. Amino provides instructions for their kits on their website, but they don’t go into the same level of educational depth as the book does.

Have the book, but not the kits yet? Don’t worry! Amino also has a Virtual Bioengineer Simulator that lets you run these experiments online in a simulated environment. It gives you a chance to practice the experiments without worrying about spilling things or wasting reagents.

The Gift of Learning

The Amino kits have been widely used by teachers and enthusiasts around the world. Students as young as 12 years old can get a chance to do something, hands-on, that was still considered to be in the domain of PhDs and researchers a decade ago.

So why not consider giving the gift of knowledge to a loved one this holiday season? The Amino kits make a unique stocking stuffer for that budding scientist in the family.

I’m looking forward to seeing your rainbow bacteria soon!

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