Home brewed biomolecules:
A bioreactor for the masses?
by David J. Castillo Ph.D.
Founder and Director of Glyxon Biolabs
Bugs that make things
“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words.
If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use them.”
-Philip K. Dick-
Low-cost Wave Bioreactor developed by SBGH, 2020
The value of biodiversity
and the worth of domestication.
Philip K. Dick’s provocative but tragic quote does reveal a fundamental truth of profound socioeconomic implications regarding the manipulation of information. Everything we coin its existence has a transcendent value by the way we define that reality. The deposited trust in “things” acquires a very dynamic materialistic relevance because we are, as a species, frequently manipulating how we represent those objects.
Humans are making comparisons about the “inherent” or “defined” attributes of objects based upon social expectancies and economic abstractions. Nevertheless, those apparent arbitrary abstractions originate from more complex biosocial interactions. “Thing” and their value has never been static and has equally oscillated in importance through history.
Biodiversity is one of those entities that humans have immediately recognized and utilized but most important manipulated, and on many occasions without conscious acknowledgment of the environmental implications of that intrusive interaction. The utilitarian perception we have about natural resources has suffered a transformative reevaluation since the onset of genetic manipulation technologies. However, it does not mean that genetic manipulation has never existed before. Traditional agriculture, livestock husbandry breeding and selection, the transformation of the landscape, urbanization, and virtually any human activity pose an adaptive challenge to the surrounding ecosystems and the manipulated species as well.
The majority of the plants we eat and the animals we use for complementing our nutrition, clothing, housing, and even company are the result of artificial selection. We rarely coexist with purely wild or undomesticated biota. Through artificial selection, ve have imposed nature with aesthetic quotas and shaped it upon the human standards of beauty, nutrition, and recreational taste. That luxury is almost exclusive of the human species. Or at least for our self-absorbed understanding, it is what we would desire to claim. However, in recent years it has been demonstrated some animals species are capable of domesticating other species for their benefit.
The first conclusion is that for humans, domestication was the first deliberate genetic engineering revolution from the neolithic. Since that time, it has been the driving economic engine of entire civilizations. Nevertheless, domestication also founded the most basic bricks of the identity of any society. Any civilization appropriation of the ecosystem becomes expressed through utilitarian and ritualistic manifestations. As for other species, mutualism domestication has been a fundamental force in the evolution of ecosystems.
Human appropriation of nature has become consecrated, yet multiple times neglected. The anthropocentric categorization of natural resources encompasses a conscious understanding of its functional attributes. Such knowledge comprises the functional flexibility and richness of the genetic information of biological organisms. The manipulation of such information results in technological and economic advantages. Biotechnology has only become a sophistication of it.
The regulation of genetic manipulation technologies has lead to heated debates that clash with traditional notions about identity, origin, heritage, and rights of possession. These discussions are not trivial, given that they offer the background for biosecurity and intellectual property legislation that a country exerts over its natural resources, including those resulting from artificial manipulation. Under the law, heirloom vegetal cultivars and native agricultural varieties receive the same legal protection and denomination of origin as many patents developed at high-tech laboratories. Nevertheless, both correspond to the intellectual fruits of cultural capital.
Domestication of genes: Genes are a commodity, aren’t they?…
In practical terms, a determined gene, a plant, or an organism are not patentable but the advantageous attributes resulting from that synthetic genetic construct. A gene taken out of context is worthless. Even transgenic organisms possess integral fungibility as a system but are meaningless as separate entities. From that perspective, the functional and economic context of genes and genomes make them reliable but not by its purely inherent qualities so far. Almost everything in life is a choice, including selective breeding, sexual selection, and livestock's husbandry have done more in the entire history of agriculture than 50 years of biotechnological achievements. Just until now, we have become conscious of the power of biotechnological tools as a facilitator and accelerator of traditional selective methods.
The uncomfortable relationship between power and technology.
The detractors of biotechnological advances usually support a narrative that demonizes biotechnological knowledge.
Such rhetoric works by impersonating biotech companies and independent initiatives as greedy anonymous legions of technocrats lurking and waiting to snatch the cultural possession of aboriginal communities. But those asymmetric plays of powers are tricky if not misleading installed in a political arena seeking personal advantage instead of casting light on an objective context. Although, many indigenous communities might have never been aware of the potential value of their coexisting ecosystems without being framed within biotechnological entrepreneurship. The ethnic-economical controversy only acquired relevance when a concerted and conventional economic disadvantage becomes visible subtext for political manipulation. While the opposite, when individuals are seeking affordable technological applications, they are chronically ignored by companies, academic institutions, and governments.
It is undeniable that there is a geographical and historical asymmetry in the concentration of technical and economic resources available for the development of tools for genetic manipulation. Those differences limit social participation and concentrate on economic benefits as well. But ferociously opposing biotechnology brings obstruction to technological transference and genuinely leaves less developed societies without the power to solve complex problems that require more advanced knowledge and tools.
When the possession of information enters the public domain, a determined community could execute autonomy and self-determination. Technological knowledge could enable a reversion of such asymmetric and disadvantageous economic circumstances mentioned above. However, technological transference still depends on access to information. In this case, the information contained within the sphere of potential added-value products. With the proper tools, a community could thrive as an economically feasible biotechnological enterprise. On that matter, there is a fundamental role in the government's attitudes towards biotechnological advances. A dogmatic, inflexible posture harms more than helps to protect the environmental assets of a country and its people.
A Bioreactor for the masses
Bioreactors are the ovens where molecules of economic interest are baked, churned, distilled, fermented, and synthesized by biological entities. Although harnessing microorganisms has accompanied and greatly influenced human evolution. The manipulation of the genetic information of biological organisms for the sake of producing biosynthetic products have acquired a more relevant role in recent years. An affordable bioreactor could have a transformative influence on many aspects of the global economy. That includes less dependability on fossil fuels but the rest of the productive sectors.
If an open-source bioreactor becomes available to the mainstream, it will have an undeniable impact on many manufacturing processes that includes the supply chains and logistics. But the in-situ, horizontal access to biotechnological tools would enable autonomy.
That supposes a less scarcity of high specialty biomolecules of medical and industrial interest. However, that also raises a question: What "industry" we expect to have in the near future derived from that degree of autonomy?.
Agriculture did not boom in the neolithic solely by the discovery of plants' life cycle, but mostly by the incorporation of tools that transformed the working space, the landscape, and the resources needed to facilitate the occurrence of that biological phenomena. Biotechnological tools are just that, tools that manipulate the space, time, and the elemental resources for a particular biochemical reaction or biological activity to occur within a precise place and moment. Arable land is the space for agriculture to occur as the laboratory is for biotechnology.
History tells us agriculture has been discovered simultaneously by multiple cultures and through multiple techniques and the selected species are the resulting products of availability and necessity more than the current luxury in abundance and variability we enjoy today. The importance of trade for ancient and current civilizations has allowed us to enrich our culture and enjoy novelties from distant territories of different cultural capital and biodiversity. The same is applicable in an interconnected era. Sharing and trading information and knowledge are fundamental to sustain our societies towards an autonomous, atomized biofabrication.
A Bioreactor can be anything from an oven, wine crater, oil vessel, wooden barrel, or cloth and their modern equivalents are the PCR machine, the aluminum reactor, or silicone bag. While ancient bioreactors are accompanied by kefir, sourdough, and other started cultures, modern bioreactors are accompanied by genetic manipulation tools and electronics that facilitate automation.
The democratization of biotechnological tools.
Modern biotechnology has an unpayable debt with the Engineering and Physics sciences, and Computational sciences are the prodigy child of that marriage. For Biology, Physics is the Anthropocene equivalent of the stone blade of the Holocene era. For that instance, modern biology would be tremendously difficult without the assistance of computational devices and their massive data processing capabilities. Biological systems are complex systems, and their complexity encompasses all levels of organization from macromolecules, cells, tissues, physiological regulation, and ecosystems. The processing of such a vast amount of data in real-time is so far impossible to calculate at this moment. That presumption points out the limitations of the current of computability and the energy expenditure for such endeavor. However, microcomputers and microcontrollers began a revolution more than 40 years ago that has endured and facilitated work, communications, entertainment, etc., becoming a central pillar of the XXIth century economy. Microcomputers' evolution has lead to standardization compatibility that is diversifying and transforming.
Our proposal for an affordable Bioreactor comprises a system more than just an isolated piece of lab's gear. The system integrates readily available materials and technologies, which assembly is assisted by additive manufacturing processes. Although the development of the PCB motherboard, break-outs, and DNA vectors (plasmids) have been of proprietary construction, it follows the ethos of innovation by making and the resulting pieces of equipment would retain open accessibility by evolving at the same pace as other open-source microcontrollers.
However, the core of this project lies in offering a degree of flexibility during the assembly and integration processes in molecular biology and bioprocessing experimentation at small to medium scales manufacturing.
Given that the Bioreactor does not come from a massive assembly line, its customization and upgradability depend upon the users preceding or gained experience and particular needs. The user will begin from a generic model with the freedom to reproduce, expand, modify, adapt, diversity, and customize to a certain extent. The subsequent use of strains, tissues, and cell lines intends to become compatible with the final user's material or free distribution gene constructs assembled by MoClo repositories or similar open-distribution genetic constructs.
Our vision is user-centered. The principal objective of this project is to enable users with a set of tools that allows the acquisition of skills to develop and retain reproducible manufacturing capabilities.
The systems would incorporate interactive assistance on the building process and the integration of community repositories where the users can participate and establish collective initiatives and promote mentorship.