Maker Faire 2011 Debriefing

Maker Faire 2011 was, true to expectations, even bigger and better than last year. Expecting as much, Brian Degger and I were prepared. Our DIYbio table was a big improvement on last year, with more interaction and more experimentation on our part than before. As bad luck would have it, our location was very poor compared to last year; our stand was in the Convention Center, a room of wonders that was thoughtfully omitted from the maps and for which there were no signs to follow. For all that, we had a lot of interest and as much foot traffic as before.

Last year's table hosted some fliers, a DNA extraction experiment we ran for visitors’ benefit, and some demo equipment for centrifugation. This year, we had a variety of living exhibits including Brine shrimp in an actively growing algae culture, Kombucha (which was not sufficiently mature to show the characteristic “SCOBY” unfortunately) and two strains of Bacilli. We also had a bunch of awesome books and booklets on biotech and DIYbio to peruse, including a “Manga Guide to Biotech” which made me personally quite jealous. We had a lot more in the area of equipment, including a demo OpenPCR box kindly provided by the guys, a Pearl Biotech gelbox, an NCBE Centrifuge and Dremelfuge, a propane-cartridge powered Bunsen (which we hid for the most part due to concerns that someone might play with it..), a homemade incubator, and a homemade sterile flow hood.

Our 2011 DIYbio table, complete with OpenPCR, Pearl Biotech Gel Electrophoresis Rig, NCBE and Dremelfuge Centrifuges, and more.
Our 2011 DIYbio table, complete with OpenPCR, Pearl Biotech Gel Electrophoresis Rig, NCBE and Dremelfuge Centrifuges, and more.

The last pieces of equipment were the most practical at the Faire, because we used the incubator and flow hood to host a walk-up-workshop. Participants were invited to don disposable gloves and learned to streak petri dishes with Bacillus subtilis 168, a safe laboratory strain. Their plates were pre-poured with potato-dextrose agar, and were taped shut with masking tape to be taken home and incubated somewhere warm. The technically inclined were informed about the versatility and ease of genetic modification of the strain, and told to check back at for information about an upcoming plasmid that would facilitate work in this area for amateurs.

Quite a number of people from active Biohacking collectives or Biohackerspaces came to visit, and joined us later for the DIYbio dinner. Particular shoutouts to the guys from TOG hackerspace in Dublin, DIYbioMCR from Manchester Madlab, and London Hackerspace. Quite a few individuals not directly related to biohackspaces made it to either the table or the dinner also, and it was great to meet so many people I'd previously only communicated with by Twitter or Email. In particular, I'd like to thank Jonathan Street, without whom the table wouldn't have been nearly as successful this year. We met at the previous Maker Faire, and Jonathan offered to help this year; more than helping, he practically ran the workshop and ensured that the key concepts were communicated quickly and in a friendly manner.

Finally, we entertained ourselves with an experiment of our own. Having read a paper describing the use of Crystal Violet and Methyl Orange as effective DNA stains for electrophoresis, we set out to replicate the work ourselves. In the rush to get things ready for Maker Faire, I omitted bringing the plasmid DNA or Ladder that I'd promised to bring, or the Sodium Borate we were going to use as a running buffer. With some kind help (in the form of 1kb Ladder and 10x TAE buffer) from the Institute for Human Genetics on the Center for Life campus, we were back in business by the second morning.

A Pearl Open Gelbox with 5x 9V batteries driving an electrophoresis run.
5 (later 6) 9V batteries powered our gel during the run.

Our gel was run in the Pearl Biotech rig, powered by 54V worth of 9V battery conducted by wire from the kind guys at the RepRap table (who bailed us out twice; huge thanks to the RepRap guys!). The gel was only supposed to be 0.8%, but either through scales or human error it seemed to end up very rigid, and running the DNA took quite a while. We ran 18uL samples of neat ladder and ladder serially diluted tenfold, down to 1/10000, to see what minimum quantity was visible to the naked eye.

The results were promising if not perfect. After running the DNA until the loading dye showed a fair separation, we stained the gel in a bath of CV/MO solution for 35 minutes, then destained for another 30 minutes. Bands in the highest ladder concentration were just visible toward the end, though not very clear. Clearly the method needs some work, and in-gel staining would be best for practical use; it's something that will receive much attention from me in coming days I feel. However for a preliminary result, it was a great start. The method will receive its own blogpost someday soon.

A picture of the resulting gel post-staining and destaining.
After staining and destaining, we visualised the Gel over an Android tablet.

Experiments to work on for the next major event include (at time of writing at least) a protocol for a plasmid miniprep that can be accomplished with minimal use of chemicals not found in a well-stocked kitchen, a more effective safe/visual gel staining technique, and testing of the pIndie plasmid in Bacillus subtilis.

Thanks again to everyone who helped make the Maker Faire table this year a reality, in particular the co-hosts of the table, Brian Degger of and Jonathan Street.

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