Startup aims to democratize synthetic biology

Alumna’s mini-lab kits include all necessary tools and materials for anyone to start engineering microbes.

MIT Media Lab spinout Amino Labs aims to bring synthetic biology to the world, with an all-in-one mini-lab kit that can be used in labs and classrooms, and even right at home.

Synthetic biology — injecting microbes with different DNA programs to make them perform new functions — has become an increasingly promising discipline. Research has yielded, for instance, viruses that attack harmful bacteria, yeasts that produce biofuels, and microbes capable of detecting environmental toxins. Companies are also engineering microorganisms to produce pigments, fragrances, and chemicals for consumer products.

“Synthetic biology is a powerful technology that will transform humanity this century,” says Amino CEO Julie Legault SM ’15, a tech-savvy designer who co-founded the startup with Justin Pahara, a Cambridge University graduate.

Amino recently launched its first commercial synthetic biology kits — based largely on Legault’s Media Lab thesis research — that include all the necessary tools and materials for anyone, anywhere, to start experimenting with engineering microbes. Currently, the kits include bacteria that radiate different colors, but Amino is soon expanding to bacteria that emit scents.

Amino currently offers two full kits: the entry-level DNA Playground, which comes with everything to program and grow bacteria on a petri dish, and the more advanced Bio Explorer, which includes the same basic equipment as well as a few additional tools and a liquid bacteria culture. “Users can extract the bacteria from the liquid culture to create pigment for a real product, such as paint,” Legault says.

The kits — which cost $390 for Playground and around $1,700 for Explorer — are about one-tenth as expensive as purchasing the individual equipment, Legault says. Amino has sold about 250 full kits, so far, to teachers and students, parents and children, museums, makers, artists, and researchers. The startup is also hoping to bring the kits to students in developing countries and to researchers that operate in areas without access to full biology labs.

Like following a recipe

Amino’s kits come with a machine, about the size of a shoe box, that contains a touchscreen thermostat and two temperature-based “stations” on the top. A cold station, which resembles a ventilation fan, reaches freezing temperatures to chill microbes or certain ingredients. The hot station, an indented circular plate, “heatshocks” the bacteria to allow the preprogrammed DNA to go through cell membranes. It also warms ingredients and incubates cells at various temperatures. Some machines come Wi-Fi-enabled, so users can track temperatures remotely and share their data.

The kits also come with “wetware,” meaning the biological agents, such as the preprogrammed DNA, bacteria, and liquid buffers. To experiment, users basically take the DNA tube (blue cap), mix it with the buffer (red cap), and pour the solution onto a petri dish, or liquid culture, and stick it on the hot station. Included software walks users through the experiments and explains the science.

“It’s very similar to following a cooking recipe,” Legault says.

Users can order kits with 10 different colors: blue, blueberry blue, violet, orange, teal, purple, fluorescent cyan, fluorescent magenta, fluorescent yellow, and fluorescent raspberry red. This summer, kits will include fragrances, such as banana and mint, and may include 50 different colors and scents by the year’s end, Legault says. Amino also separately sells the individual wetware, bacteria-extraction tools, and even canvases for bacteria art.

Other synthetic-biology kits exist. But those are designed primarily for classrooms and require knowledgeable teachers, Legault says. Amino’s kits — which some media have dubbed the “Easy-Bake Oven” for biology — are meant for the general public. That, of course, also benefits middle and high school teachers, who may not have the requisite knowledge.

“In my high school, teachers would often get moved from gym class to science class and have to teach the material,” says Legault, who hails from Montreal. With Amino’s kits, “you don’t have to know the science or technology. You just have to know how to use a touchscreen.”

The kits can also serve as a general platform for users to hack with their own DNA programs. Legault and Pahara are currently writing a book that walks users, step by step, through creating different DNA programs. By 2020, the startup hopes to offer more technologically advanced kits to these biohackers.

“We are building out the kits’ capabilities, but we also don’t want to go too fast and scare away users,” Legault says. “The important thing for us is to let people know you can do synthetic biology with no prior knowledge.”

Personal biology

For Legault, making synthetic biology more accessible was a personal journey. She came to the Media Lab in 2014 with a background in design and wearables — and practically no knowledge of synthetic biology.

But, during Legault’s first year, she helped Media Lab Director Joi Ito organize a biotech hackathon on campus that centered around the technologies of Synbiota, a startup developing software for managing biodiversity data, co-founded by Connor Dickie SM ’07 and Pahara, her future Amino Labs co-founder.

During that two-weekend hackathon, Legault created a DNA program for bacteria to create an anticancer agent, “but which also produced a really nice purple color,” Legault says.

That experience, creating pigment from living cells, inspired Legault to delve into the rather obscure subject of synthetic biology. “Biology was something in high school, where we dissected frogs but never created anything inspiring,” she says.

That fall, she reserved space in an MIT biology lab. But the lab was a long walk away, and she found herself working alongside students conducting cancer research or handling hazardous materials. “I was just trying to engineer cells to glow in the dark, which is the most basic thing to do,” she says. “It was a bit of a nightmare.”

To make things more comfortable, Legault designed a portable minilab. Using her engineering chops, she created miniaturized versions of a culturing bioreactor, a heating and cooling station, and a microbe incubator. The lab’s design would then become the subject of her thesis project, which she calls, “the domestication of biotechnology.” The idea was inspired, in part, by Tamagotchi, the electronic device that lets users feed and care for a virtual pet. “You’d grow bacteria and inject it with different sugars to see how it could react, bringing a playful, nurturing aspect to science experiments,” she says.

At first, Legault had no interest in commercialization. When she presented the minilab at conferences around Boston, however, people began asking to buy them. That year, she took the idea to Media Lab’s E14 Fund, which provides stipends, mentoring, networking, and basic legal and accounting services to student entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurship wasn’t a route I was looking to get into, but there was demand and interest, and the E14 Fund offered a low-risk way to test if anyone wanted the kit,” she says. “That was really valuable at that point.”

Pahara, who was then developing wetware for Synbiota, joined Legault. In 2015, the two, along with contracted engineers, built a prototype kit and hosted workshops at, among other venues, the Cambridge Science Festival, the MIT Museum, and local middle schools and high schools. Two years of testing and refining led to Amino’s two current commercial kits.

Today, Amino, headquartered in Alberta, Canada, is gaining traction, having delivered kits to 21 countries, to schools and at-home learners. The startup is currently in talks with the Zhejiang Association for Science and Technology (ZAST) in China to expand into the Chinese market and open an office there. The startup would introduce kits to classrooms, so students can develop basic skills, and educate the public about synthetic biology’s potential to, for instance, help treat disease and alleviate world hunger. “China realizes the potential of synthetic biology and is hungry to bring innovation to the country,” Legault says.

The startup also has plans to bring the kits to Africa — for students, but also for researchers. “In much of Africa, there aren’t research labs for African scientists or people going there to solve problems, such as curing diseases,” Legault says. “Our kits could be used by researchers in the field for research and development or diagnostics.”

Story originally published April 18, 2018 by Rob Matheson for MIT News.