What does it take to be a genetic engineer?
August 17, 2012 12:09 PM   Subscribe

What does it take to be a genetic engineer? The sort that modify gene sequences to make organisms better suited for humanity. Is it possible to be a self taught genetic engineer with textbooks and home made lab equipment without endangering myself? I can spend 10-20 hrs a week on this endeavor. Going to college doesn't seem like a good idea due to my work schedule and because I already have an advanced degree and don't see the appeal.

I am an EE and have very little non wikipedia based life science learning.
posted by savitarka to Education (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What's your budget?
posted by mr_roboto at 12:12 PM on August 17, 2012

Forgot to mention my budget. I can spend $1500-$2000 over the next year for this.
posted by savitarka at 12:20 PM on August 17, 2012

I'm not a genetic engineer, but I have a few friends who either work in genomic research or are trying to. It seems extremely competitive for those with advanced degrees from schools that have top programs.

I also have some friends who do IT support for companies that build lab equipment for genomic research. That work seems much easier to get, and may be a better match for your EE background.

I wouldn't want to get into DIY genetic engineering without a very good understanding of safety best practices. Chemistry done wrong can seriously fuck you up, and cells are basically little chemical factories.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:21 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The term you're looking for is "biohacking". There are definitely people doing this.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 12:22 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is a small but active DIYbio and biohacking community, which you might join. Simply getting to the point of being able to splice a sequence into a simple organism is certainly within the reach of a determined amateur.

But that's just the technical side. Figuring out what you want to splice into something and understanding whether it's a good idea is harder, I think. I'd seriously consider going to school to learn more biology, even if receiving a degree isn't your goal.

As an analogy, you can learn to solder and assemble some Heathkits, but if you don't know any circuit theory you'll have a hard time going farther than that.
posted by hattifattener at 12:30 PM on August 17, 2012

Biohacking looks fun, but I don't think it's a particularly direct route to "making organisms better suited for humanity." You could engineer some bacteria tomorrow, probably the only thing you'd need to buy would be a basic incubator, but if you're talking about plants, animals, algae, it gets complicated fast.

I have inserted bacterial DNA into frog embryos and created tadpoles with glowing green hearts. It was a lot of work and I needed a lot of help. I used equipment like $100,000 ultracentrifuges and also stuff like a $60 aquarium pump and needles I made myself by stretching glass tubes through a bunsen burner flame. Frogs are pretty easy because their eggs are squishy and numerous.

In general I don't think genetic engineering on eukaryotes is really a solo project - it requires a lot of different kinds of expertise.
posted by mskyle at 12:30 PM on August 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you limit yourself to bacteria and maybe yeast, you might be able to pull it off at that budget, but I don't think you will be able to do anything significant with more complex organisms.

Mammalian cell culture can get very expensive (for example, look at the price of fetal bovine serum and consider that a typical mammalian cell culture will have 10% FBS plus lots other expensive ingredients - you will need many liters). There is also the cost of things like a tissue culture hood (not really required for bacteria), incubator, etc. And that's just for the cell culture: DNA manipulation/analysis will require a whole other set of tools.

Some background: I have genetically engineered bacteria, mammalian cells, and viruses, but not yeast.
posted by exogenous at 12:32 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The equipment and materials for this sort of thing are quite expensive. Assuming that all you want to modify is bacteria and that you are content with cutting and pasting existing sequences from one type of bacteria into another (pretty much the simplest useful form of genetic engineering), you are going to need a centrifuge, a microcentrifuge, incubators (both shaking and still versions), a sterile hood, a set of micropipettes, glassware, access to an autoclave, access to a sequencing lab, various reagents for growing cultures and performing digests and ligations and analyses thereof, a decent computer with the relevant software, digest and ligation enzymes, a minus 20C freezer, a minus 80C freezer, antibiotics, competent cells, DNA extraction kits, electrophoresis apparatus, a gel dock for photographing your electrophoresis gels, a PCR machine, and lots and lots of consumables starting with but not limited to oodles of eppendorf tubes and micropipette tips. That's just off the top of my head, I'm definitely forgetting some things.

We're talking mid six figures, easily -- this kind of equipment is the sort of thing that a university lab would have amassed over decades and would tend carefully over the years so as to avoid having to replace anything more quickly than necessary. Much of it would typically be shared between several labs in order to split costs. It's all utterly standard microbiology lab equipment, but that doesn't mean it's cheap. Oh, also you would need at least three or four other people to work with you, because this kind of stuff doesn't get done by just one person -- you need other people to share the work of babysitting reactions, helping to troubleshoot malfunctioning procedures and equipment, etc. It's a job for a team, rather than a solo operator.

As far as the knowledge, well, I'm about to begin Year Four of my undergraduate career in more or less exactly this sort of thing, and Year Three of working in labs that perform these sorts of operations as the bread and butter of their research, and I still wouldn't really be able to design the experiments from scratch. I mean, I can execute all of the required procedures and make rational adjustments and analyze the results on my own most of the time, but as far as choosing what to do and why I would be totally in the weeds, out of my depth almost immediately. (That's what grad school will hopefully clear up for me.) And I definitely haven't made anything useful, unless you count an E. coli strain that expresses a fluorescent protein normally found in cyanobacteria as useful. Which actually it might be down the line if that lab ever gets its bilin-based FRET system working to a degree that it becomes a useful alternative to GFP-based FRET in some other research lab somewhere.

Seriously, if you want to get into this stuff I highly recommend going back to school rather than trying to be self-taught. For one, you're not going to save time teaching yourself -- there is a ton of stuff to learn and I promise you you'll save time if you go to school and get some experienced people to teach it to you. It's frustrating to start at the bottom with Biology 101, but Biology 101 is actually a fascinating course if it's taught even semi-competently, so there's that to look forward to. It's a fun field to be in (as long as you have a high tolerance for tedium and failure) and you totally can get into it if you are willing to put in the time and jump through the hoops. But the state of genetic engineering research is such that these days not only is its practice pretty inaccessible to the autodidact, there's also no opportunity in the field for people who don't have formal degrees in the subject. No jobs, that is to say.

You can totally get a job as a lab technician with a four-year bachelor degree though, doing the work of genetic engineering, and I bet that at least some of your E.E. training would carry over and save you maybe a year or so, and maybe even would allow you to develop a useful cross-disciplinary specialization down the line. Plus if you want an in on the industry, that's where you'll get your initial contacts. Also biology is freakin' fascinating and you might be like me and fall absolutely in love with a branch of the field totally other from that which you initially thought you wanted to go into it for. So sorry to burst your bubble of becoming an independent, self-taught genetic engineer, but don't give up hope! Find a good state school near you and enroll half-time in a biology program. Try it for a semester and see if you're still interested. I bet you will be, because like I said it's fucking fascinating stuff and it's amazing both how much there is to know and how much we just don't know yet. People doing genetic engineering are very much still working out on the edge of what is possible, where the things that we try fail nine times out of ten and that tenth time is, at best, just a tiny incremental step in the right direction. It's still extremely exciting to be the first person to learn some tiny thing that literally nobody else on earth knows yet. I highly recommend it.
posted by Scientist at 12:44 PM on August 17, 2012 [11 favorites]

There was a whole article in wired about this...ppl doing this for fun as a game. Check out the most recent issue online.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 12:45 PM on August 17, 2012

Oh, and as far as endangering yourself, the most dangerous thing that microbiologists normally work with is ethidium bromide, which is a fluourescent and carcinogenic chemical used for staining electrophoresis gels so that you can photograph DNA under ultraviolet light to get an idea of whether or not you actually have the piece of DNA that you are looking for. Typically we deal with it by wearing rubber gloves when we're doing that part of the procedure, isolating the part of the lab where the equipment for that procedure lives, and wiping down anything that we touch with water if we've recently been working with it. It's not too bad, could be worse. If you're doing protein gels you might work with polyacrylamide which is quite toxic but again is nothing too fearful. And of course depending on what exactly you are doing the danger level could be anything from mild to eye-shrivelingly-terrifying, but the baseline required level of danger is not too bad. Probably the biggest danger I've been in thus far would be from getting my hand caught in the hydraulic press used for cracking cells.

People are right too that if you want to just do toy reactions as sort of a hobby then you could probably do it on your budget. There are definitely ways to jury-rig equipment and make things work as long as you are willing to stick to robust, established procedures that are failure-tolerant and don't require high sensitivity, and as long as you are willing to put in extra time and effort wrestling with gear that doesn't work quite right. I will say though that in my Cell and Microbiology lab, which was a lab full of third-year biology undergrads doing classic, robust, designed-for-the-classroom procedures under the watchful eye of an instructor using correct equipment albeit not-exactly-cutting-edge reagents (though they would've been cutting edge fifteen years ago) the failure rate for something as simple as extracting DNA from a hair follicle, digesting the alu gene out of it, amplifying it via PCR, and analyzing it on a gel was definitely over 50%. Granted, most of those people could've done it just fine if they had the opportunity to practice more.
posted by Scientist at 1:03 PM on August 17, 2012

Oh and if you want to make jury-rigged equipment and use cheap, sub-standard reagents then you really have to have a solid understanding of what the equipment and reagents do. The thing about the expensive stuff that gets used in real research labs is that all you have to do to get it to work (assuming that what you are trying to do is something that can be done, which in research is never a given) is basically follow instructions very, very meticulously. If you are doing it the cheap way then you really have to know what you are doing because it's not going to want to work unless you can sort of coax everything into alignment which requires a solid grasp of the theory behind the procedures that you are doing.
posted by Scientist at 1:06 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Googling DIYbio will get you a lot of resources. The problem is, as everyone above has said, there is a big difference between doing this as a hobby and actually trying to make a useful genetically modified organism. Whether it makes sense to pursue this as a hobby depends a lot on what your longer term goals are. If you're really serious about it, I would imagine it makes sense to leverage your EE skills to move into a field that uses those to develop biological tools (something like IonTorrent, maybe) and then pick up more biology from there. If you're just interested in it for fun, the DIYbio community is probably a good place to start.
posted by pombe at 1:21 PM on August 17, 2012

You can definitely set up a home lab with your budget - someone I know has done something similar and I, a university lab-based scientist, have been amazed at what they have been able to buy online, and how cheap it has been (open source PCR machine for $600! fantastic little light microscope for $150!) Those of us in traditional labs are paying through the nose for some of the stuff we buy! So I don't think your budget is an issue, so much as your time. The person I know who has started this home lab, who is coming from a similar background as you, and thus is also self taught re: biological/biomedical science, has been spending a lot more than 10-12 hours per week on the work.

One other point, you will need access to scientific and medical journal articles for you to learn more about this area. An affiliation with a university, through which you can access these articles, would be almost essential. Google scholar and PubMed provide the databases, but not all the articles you will need will have the full text available freely online.

Good luck! Twelve months ago I would have posted a similar answer to Scientist's, but after seeing someone do something like this, and with much success, I would say that it is worth a shot!
posted by unlaced at 1:46 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think you want to try to do the laboratory stuff on your own. You don't know how to use it, you don't know what you need. I think you want to prepare for a job which is a stepping stone to where you want to be.

In short: you need 1-1 advice from someone in the field. Scientists get these emails all the time, and as long as they are concise and full of enthusiasm you have a high chance of getting a response.

Have you heard of iGEM? (igem.org) Given your EE background, it seems like an awesome goal for you. Find someone on one of the teams, maybe connected to your alma mater. It's possible they would be able to mentor you, but at the very least they can list some textbooks.
posted by tintexas at 1:49 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Take a look at iGEM.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:17 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thirding that iGEM is a great idea. I participated lo, these many moons ago, and there were definitely students who had basically zero biology experience who by a few weeks in were down in the trenches doing minipreps. Downside: you may realize genetic engineering can be incredibly boring and frustrating (particularly cloning, though it's getting less painful all the time); also I'm not sure how open it is to non-college students.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:21 PM on August 17, 2012

I'm going to say NO, it isn't. Lab equipment and reagents are extremely expensive, and while published techniques exist, they aren't necessarily going to get you very far. Science is much more about active mentoring than it is about following recipes. For any given technique there are just tons of 'gotchas' that you won't ever get from reading a manual. That information only comes from constantly working with your peers in the field.
posted by mmmmbobo at 4:39 PM on August 17, 2012

Thanks everyone that took the time to answer. Special thanks to Scientist - I don't understand a lot of stuff you are talking about but I appreciate your time nevertheless. I will stick to simple bacteria after getting some theoretical understanding of the subject. I'd greatly appreciate if someone suggested textbooks to get me started. I'll stick to what is reasonable for the next year and see if the fascination sticks. DIYbio and iGEM are solid suggestions.

I do like my current circuit design job and make a good living. I don't want to put in years into this and realize I'm only good enough to become an underpaid lab technician. I had a problem paying attention to anything taught in classrooms all my life and whatever I know as an electrical engineer is mostly self taught. Looks like this won't be the case in other areas. I will keep you guys updated with any progress I make.

Thanks again.
posted by savitarka at 5:11 PM on August 17, 2012

Should be easy to volunteer in a university research lab.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:15 PM on August 17, 2012

I am a Research Scientist at a respected institution, a geneticist, and have been involved in setting up molecular genetics labs. I have a PhD in evolutionary genetics.

I have to disagree with nearly all the answers so far. It is simply impossible to set up an amateur molecular genetics lab within the parameters you have defined. Moreover, genetics is not a "black-box" science: you cannot just follow a protocol and obtain results; you must understand the theory that underpins the practical science to get any data at all. Remember too that data needs to be analysed, which takes further expertise. The goals you have outlined are the kind of goals that multi-million National Science Foundation grants (and those offered by other similar funding agencies) are aimed at achieving. To answer your questions more specifically, see my following dot points.

~ $500 000 was mentioned above as the cost of setting up a molecular genetics lab. This is an incredibly low figure. A colleague of mine just set up a molecular lab from scratch and the cost was above $1.5 million. That figure doesn't include consumable goods either (e.g. pipette tips etc), or the costs of actually obtaining raw genetic data, it is simply the cost of getting the basic equipment to run a SMALL genetics lab.

~ You absolutely cannot be a geneticist without an extended period of learning. Whilst it might have been possible to learn about genetics in an amateur way even 40 years ago, it just isn't now. By all means please do study up on the topic if you are interested, however, it is a complicated topic. Some folks have suggested you read the primary literature, but this material is impossible to understand if you don't have a good understanding of the basics. Truthfully, all geneticists have had moments when we have to read articles multiple times and then discuss them with others before we understand them at all. Genetics literature contains large amounts of jargon: this actually does make it easier to understand for us, but makes it inaccessible to others. In short, what you are proposing to do as a hobby is a goal more suited to being your life's pursuit.

~ What you are proposing is one of the more dangerous things I have ever heard. I say this as someone who has worked with the most deadly spider in the world. Scientist covered just a little bit of it above, but it bears repeating. The chemicals used in genetics research are bloody dangerous. Only one part of this danger is that genetics lab work necessitates the use of DNA stains. A rough explanation of DNA stains is that they work by pulling apart your DNA and inserting themselves into it. This increases the risk of DNA mutation, which increases the risk of cancer. I can't find a paper for it right now, but I have been told by so many mentors to be careful in the lab because geneticists have traditionally displayed high rates of cancer. Apart from all of that, setting up a backyard lab is a huge safety risk. Lab fires are dangerous to firefighters and anyone nearby due to the chemicals needed to run such a lab. I once worked at an institution where an OH&S incident in a lab (in another department!) led to a fire which meant that the entire university was evacuated due to toxic volatiles in the air. Also the windows were blown out of the building the fire started in due to the explosion that started the fire.

THAT BEING SAID... if you want to learn more about genetics then Mendelian Genetics may be something you'd be interested in. This link provides information on recreating Mendel's experiments. This resource is an online simulator of Mendel's experiments.

Genetics is fascinating, and if you're interested then you should learn more about it. BUT genetics is a big field. It isn't enough to learn the facts and the protocols, you have to learn a new way of thinking. Genetics is something that is best learned with the aid of a mentor: there is just so much you have to explore in order to understand the field. I'm an established scientist, but I have several mentors (who, in turn, have their own mentors) because book learning just isn't enough. You have to understand the field deeply, which takes time and experimentation and discussion.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 7:43 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wait wait wait!

I don't want to put in years into this and realize I'm only good enough to become an underpaid lab technician.

I think everyone in this thread (including me) so far has been assuming you want to do this for the fun of it. If you are doing it because you hope to eventually be able to switch fields and start higher than a lab technician, don't bother.

Research scientists do not get employed on the basis of what they are able to do, no matter how well they are self-taught. They have PhDs. It's a minimum requirement. (And then they have to have published a lot, and had experience working in research groups, maybe leading groups, supervising students, winning grants, etc - those are things that distinguish people with PhDs who can get research jobs from people with PhDs who can't.) And given how many researchers would like to work in academia and can't find jobs, you would be competing with them in start-ups and other private industry too. I think it is very unlikely that any job in the field would hire you on the basis of what you have taught yourself, no matter how good that is.

Even if you got a job as a lab technician, which MIGHT be possible without a degree in genetics, although I wonder even then... you would not be able to progress from that to a research position until you had a higher degree.

The only way it might even be vaguely possible is if your self-taught experience led to you publishing lots of high quality papers in good journals, and presenting at conferences, and you made a name for yourself in the field. Then people might be interested in you for jobs, but they'd probably still baulk when they found out you didn't have a PhD.
posted by lollusc at 7:53 PM on August 17, 2012

I posted on this a few years ago but link rot has set in. Here's the video. It's probably right up your alley.

Anyhow, could you, acting alone, purchase or create an oligonucleotide, insert that into a plasmid, put that in an E. coli and express some protein for the budget you describe? Maybe. The problems you're going to run into are that there are a lot of different steps in all of this, including analytic work to confirm that each step is successful, each requiring their own reagents and equipment.

That said, if you want to play with some of the components of things and see what you can do, I'd recommend trying some electrophoresis and then maybe moving on to western blots. "DIY Electrophoresis" gets about 200 hits on Google. After that, you could try Western Blot or ELISA. A lot of the tools you need can be found on Ebay or cobbled together from things an EE probably has laying around the house. I'm pretty sure I could make a good enough plate reader from a decent diffuser lamp, a digital camera and FIJI to clearly differentiate 8 ng/mL from 4 ng/mL of most proteins given decent antibodies. An electrophoresis power supply is even easier to cobble together (the whole experiment is described here).

You can get pretty far without having to stray into any really dangerous territory. Yeah, I'd tend to avoid things that stuck to DNA. You are unlikely to ever deal with anything seriously explosive unless you set up an HPLC (unlikely, columns are not cheap) in your living room and use a lot of organic solvents and/or practice bad cylinder hygiene with your argon tank.

You're unlikely to cure cancer in the back yard shed, but yeah, it is possible to learn lots of things and not poison yourself. The biggest risk is your neighbors telling the police you're making meth out there.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:37 PM on August 17, 2012

Sorry if my post was confusing. I am not thinking about a career change at all (at least not in the near future). I was only responding to Scientist's answer that given my background, years of studying by myself will only equip me with the skill to be a lab tech. I just wanted to know if it was possible to do experiments with bacteria to do something cool and useful.
posted by savitarka at 12:25 AM on August 18, 2012

Really quickly, this is a total side note but the most common DNA stain, EtBr, especially in the quantities that you use for running a gel, does not appear to be as dangerous as many people assume. (That doesn't necessarily mean I'd be happy with people disposing of it in e.g. normal trash, though. And don't like, put it in your coffee.)

A few somewhat-disconnected thoughts follow: I would definitely second that having some mentorship, whether that's as a part of something like iGEM or as a volunteer in a research lab, is going to be essential if you want to make a serious go at this. It's going to be hard to even figure out what you need if you've never done wet-lab work before and don't have a really clear idea of what exact project you want to do. This can be especially disastrous because your budget is very small for molecular work, so you'd be blowing through it very fast. Finally, while it's formally possible you could hit upon something useful yourself if everything went absolutely right, you have a much better shot if you join a team. By yourself, you might get to transforming some bacteria with a fluorophore (which granted, is cool!), but as part of a team you could go a lot further. (Links are to award-winning iGEM projects from last year.)

The fact that you're coming from EE is great but also merits a special warning, which is that you are likely to very quickly find that synthetic biology is an entirely different world. If you get at all deep into this, expect to spend a lot of time bashing away on genetic circuits that "should" work on paper, and expect to mostly use blind trial and error to "fix" them. Biomolecular parts are extremely difficult to characterize in kinetic detail, are often very noisy, and often do not act independently of one another even when it seems like they should. I actually know a few people who have come from an engineering background and done their Ph.D. work in synthetic biology, and they all reported being incredibly frustrated with the glacial pace and the chronic stumbling around in the dark that it takes to get anything to work.

I don't quite think that means that you have no hope of getting anything fulfilling out of this without dedicating your life to genetics. Putting plasmids together can be tedious but it is not conceptually difficult, and it won't take that long to get at least a handle on the basics of prokaryotic gene regulation (i.e., here is a promoter, here is a ribosome binding site, here is a coding sequence). You should probably adjust your expectations a bunch - "useful" is a bar that it is difficult for even Ph.D.-level work in synthetic biology to clear - but with the right mentor you could at least be making things glow within a few months, which could at least give you an appreciation for how this kind of thing is done. (And I mean, glowing bacteria, what's not to like.)

Lastly, I've also heard of some hackerspace-type places in the SF area that do lab classes for non-biologists and have lab space set up so that you don't have to stock the place yourself. I know next to nothing about these groups otherwise, but something like this might interest you if it's not too much of a hike.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:39 AM on August 18, 2012

BTW, if you want something to read in this vein, what immediately comes to mind is A Genetic Switch by Mark Ptashne.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:41 AM on August 18, 2012

I'm going to agree with everyone above me, but add a few more suggestions. Since you have a 4 year degree already, you might be able to find a lab that will allow you to volunteer to help out and learn new skills. This will require pounding the pavement and using your network, as well as sending out loads of emails. You may be able to get a lab tech job, but that will be next to impossible if you are unable to work during the 9-5 timeslot, and since you don't have any prior lab experience.

Another danger that hasn't been mentioned is that since you don't know what you are doing, you might accidentally weaponize a pathogenic bacteria. Many genetic engineering techniques require adding antibiotic resistance markers. Bacteria that are antibiotic resistant can't be treated as efficiently if they infect a person. You are covered in potentially pathogenic bacteria, and it's possible that you could add antibiotic resistance to one of them. (Normally, labs that work on pathogens only add antibiotic resistances to drugs that aren't used in treatment, but these are tightly regulated. This is mostly a warning if you would be working on bacteria that are already available to you, and not purchasing them from an outside source.

If your goal is to make something that could be truly useful to people, you could look into doing genetic engineering the old fashioned way - by cross breeding plants or animals. With your budget, you could reasonably set up a plant cross breeding operation. I could envision a pretty neat set up where you could domesticate a local, wild growing edible plant, and then select for traits such as meatier berries, or more tolerant growing conditions.
posted by fermezporte at 10:36 AM on August 21, 2012

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