January 2015 - Revolution Bioengineering
30 Jan

Thursday evening at Denver Biolabs

Denver Biolabs is a DIY bio group that got started by RJ Duran and Heather Underwood. Apparently there was a Boulder Biohacker group that got organized, had one meeting and then never another. Before all the enthusiasm and ambition for Front Range DIY bio dissipated, RJ collected the Boulder mailing list and he and Heather started Denver Biolabs at inWorks on the CU Denver campus.

Inworks

CU Denver has an exciting new space called inWorks that is committed to purposeful and intentional problem solving.  Heather Underwood is the Associate Director of inWorks, and is excited to see the space grow.  The facility is brand new, and has so much potential for where it can go and what can happen, and Heather is leading the charge to develop a strong biological component at inWorks.  It’s a beautiful space with 3d printers, machine tools, and lots of equipment I can’t even identify that is good for building, prototyping, doing electronics, and who knows what else.  Right now the community can participate in workshops and short courses, and as they grow they will be figuring out a good system for utilizing the space and equipment for everyone who wants to and has been properly trained to use it.

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I gave a talk on Thursday (29 Jan 2015) at inWorks to the Denver Biolabs group about the work we are doing at Revolution Bio making beautiful consumer biotechnology products: color-changing flowers. The audience had a mix of technical (not biology) backgrounds, as well as Ph.Ds in plant molecular biology, so the talk was just an informal and fun discussion about plant pigments and generalized strategies to change flower color. The audience was engaged and there were lots of great questions about both the science of flower color, and questions about regulations and business.

I’m glad RJ and Heather got things rolling for the DIY bio scene in Colorado, and I’m happy to be a part of that group. However, after my parking ticket last night, I don’t think I’m going to try and park anywhere near inWorks, and just plan on a nice walk.

Get involved with Denver Biolabs on Meetup or on Facebook.

Find out more about inWorks at CU Denver at their website.

29 Jan

SynBio LEAP – building the future

SynBio LEAP: building the future of synthetic biology
SynBio LEAP: building the future of synthetic biology

SynBio LEAP: building the future of synthetic biology

I have been selected as one of 2015’s Synthetic Biology LEAP Fellows!

LEAP is designed to develop leaders from the ranks of communicators, scientists, ethicists, industry and do-it-yourselfers invested in the promise, potential, and impact of synthetic biology. I’m pleased to see folks I know as fellow LEAP Fellows—people like Mike Koeris from Sample 6, who is focusing on how to make the future safer, Camille Delebeque from SynBio Consulting, who thinks deeply about complicated questions of policy and science, and Edward Perello who is working to integrate the computer and the wetlab.

I’m also excited to meet those synthetic biology people that I haven’t yet connected with. Scientists like Nicola Patron for example, who in addition to her research has made a brilliant kit for plant transformation via Addgene. Scientist Lalitha Sundaram, who has a passion for biosensors and how it can impact the most poorly served communities. Using biotechnology to improve life across the globe is a passion she shares with Bill Gates, who focuses on agricultural biotechnology in his latest letter.

Crop Life Graphic

The world in plants. Click to visit Crop Life’s Biotech Plant Development page for an exceptionally well done description of plant biotechnology

Another Fellow, Cameron Keys, has spent years focusing on the impact of collaboration between social and natural scientists. I’m fascinated to hear what he’s learned about the way this partnership both shapes the actual scientific experiments and the way we share them. After the January NAS interface conference on communicating complex technologies like GMOs, I think we need as much of this collaboration as we can get.

thefuture Meet all the 2015 SynBio LEAP fellows! They’ve all got amazing stories.

While I can’t list everyone here, I encourage you to take to learn more about the 2015 SynBio LEAP Fellows. The participants are more than just our jobs or our research. We are interested in the impact of synthetic biology, both as a tool that can begin to be of use now, and more importantly, a tool that can allow us to develop a society that is quite literally sustainable – one where we grow the things we need for the quality of life we want. LEAP fellows are working towards a world where that is possible, and that means both building scientific tools and building a strong ethical foundation for the future.

So what is my vision? I see a beautiful future. Biotechnology is more than a lofty intellectual concept, it is more than a grand plan for some distant future, and it is certainly not limited to large companies with massive corporate empires. Biotechnology can be beautiful. I’m really pleased to be able to bring my vision to LEAP next week & work on building a more beautiful future with these incredible people!

27 Jan

Alstroemerias for Valentine’s Day

Roses are so 20th century– surprise your sweetheart with alstroemerias for Valentine’s Day

alstro1

Alstroemerias (Peruvian Lily) are dazzling flowers with large showy blooms where tri-color and quad-color blooms are common. Native to various regions in South America, they are extensively cultivated in the equitorial flower growing regions of the world for markets in the USA, Europe, Russia, and Japan.

alstro2

Alsotomerias have multiple blooms per stem and one of the longest vase lives of all cut flowers– it makes for amazing long-lived arrangements on Valentine’s Day, or any other time of year.

alstro vase

Besides the usual issues with all types of floriculture, alstormerias have one addition frustration for growers: slugs love them! Alstromerias are monocots that send up new shoots from the roots. The brand new shoots that emerge from the soil are irresistible to slugs.

Orange_slug

Can breeding solve the slug herbivory problem? Can biotechnology? What are some natural and existing slug-proofing solutions that other plants have?

23 Jan

Bioengineering Dragons, Part II – Design

In Part I we talked about the rationale for bioengineering a dragon.

After a healthy and instructive discussion about your dragon needs, it turns out that you mainly want one because it’s cool (and maybe you want to impress your friends a little). Louboutin, Ferrari, Cartier, they are all products that exist primarily to meet this need. In this case, the product is a living creature and I think it is important to reiterate that we must have an ongoing and continuous conversation about the ethics involved.

It also turns out you are ludicrously wealthy and able to fund this project in perpetuity because that’s approximately how long it’s going to take to make you a dragon.

dragon-resting-head-on-womans-lap-31
Cuddly doesn’t always mean fluffy. A 1912 drawing of a lap dragon by R. Leinweber

***

Bioengineering multicellular organisms is expensive. It’s time consuming. It can be a huge investment of resources and people, and very often the way you thought biology worked is only the most surface layer of function, adding years on to your research timeline. Our color-changing flowers, for example, were designed on a solid foundation of basic research spanning 30 years, a known pathway, and team of petunia color experts, and a lot of that planning involved ways to overcome known unknowns. We needed a clear idea about what we wanted to achieve before we could develop a practical technical plan to accomplish it.

So, what do you want your dragon to look like?

  • Does the dragon need wings? Scales? Teeth?
  • Does it have to breathe fire?
  • Does the dragon need four legs or can it get by with two?
  • How big should the dragon be?

dragon
There is an exceptional flash game by Wyndbain where you can build your dragon with wings, claws, and 8 pages (!) of horn styles. However it has a terrible ad that plays when I embed it, so you’ll have to click here to use it.

Dragons are mythical creatures so we have a pretty blank slate. We can focus on the features we need to meet our goals — We don’t need to achieve full Game of Thrones functionality in the first iteration. You’re not Daenerys. If you had a full grown firebreathing dragon, at some point it would just set fire to your house and eat the neighbor kid.

Let’s starting by engineering something that looks like a dragon – something small, something that smells of sulfur once in a while. I’m thinking that the primary requirements are wings and a scaled body. Jointed wings – even if they can’t be used to fly – and a body covered in scales are pretty unmistakeable as a dragon hallmark. Everything else can be negotiated.

Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.

19 Jan

Nikolai’s advice for Entrepreneurs

Nikolais advice for entrepreneurs

I was asked for 7 points of advice for entrepreneurs by Startup Basecamp for their blog. In my time as an entrepreneur, I have read a lot of other startup advice that is very specific, or for advanced stages of business and glosses over the fundamentals. Fundamentals are everything. You win based on fundamentals, not on flea flickers and fumblerooskis.

Keira and I started up our consumer biotechnology company RevBio in 2013, and each of us has had a lot to learn in our transition from science/military/academia/normal life to being business people. But we have done it, and when reflecting on the key points to remember for success, it’s basically that list.

The 8th point that didn’t make the cut is to always make time for grapefruit cocktails.

That’s pretty important too.

Cheers!

-Nikolai

14 Jan

How to make a dragon – a step by step bioengineering guide

Revolution Bio is at the top of the search results for the terms ‘crazy bioengineering dragon idea.’ While we are making color-changing flowers, not dragons, I’m pretty excited that people looking for incredible advances in biotechnology find us on the front page. So I’m going to take a cue from XKCD’s “What If” blag and answer the question “What would it take to engineer a dragon?”

Trogdor the Burninator - Homestar Runner“Feel free to follow along with my simple step-by-step instruction.” – Strongbad, Homestar Runner

Part 1 – Should we bioengineer a dragon?

Before starting in on our dragon, we should carefully consider whether or not this project has a function beyond “Well that’s cool.” Modifying a living creature in any way, shape, or form has ethical implications – conventional breeding included. Animals have been domesticated and bred for millenia, and now broiler chickens have such disproportionate amounts of white meat that they can’t stand up . Soldiers and police rely on German Shepherds, but these dogs often have terrible hip problems as a result of their pedigree. There needs to be a compelling and comprehensive answer as to why we should engineer an organism.

Our reason for engineering a dragon doesn’t have to be as direct as “I need to regain the Iron Throne”, though — maybe there are significant technical advances that could be made by starting this project, like better understanding the developmental processes that result in wings and scales and fire-breathing. Maybe this is an engaging way to get the public intrigued in science, technology and the way the two are rapidly evolving. Maybe there are a LOT of consumers that want a pet dragon, or lap giraffes, or housecats that look like lions and cheetahs, and we just didn’t know it until someone asked the question. (Is this you? Support consumer biotechnology and sign up for our mailing list here).

A lap giraffe - luxury consumer biotechnology
Admit it, you signed up for the waiting list.

Let’s take a close look at why we need a dragon, and then determine whether bioengineering is the best possible solution to those needs.

In some cases, there may be an existing solution that could take the place of bioengineering a dragon. Are you looking for an animal companion that will keep down your goat population? Why not a golden eagle instead? Maybe you want a trusty steed that you can rely on in dangerous situations. Horses might be a little tame for your taste, but a war zebra or an elephant might do just as well.

blog post trogdor part 1 dragon v 747
Left: Airplane, Right: Dragon

It’s also unlikely that bioengineering will be the quick and inexpensive way to accomplish your goal. If your primary goal is personal flight transportation, we have some incredible aeronautical engineering marvels out there in the shape of airplanes and helicopters, and human powered gliders also exist. At today’s level of technology, there is no possible way that making this dragon will be in any way cheaper or faster than mechanical flight. An animal that a human can ride through the air is a tall order.

Right now “because they’re cool” is probably still at the top of your list of reasons to bioengineer a dragon. The cool factor drives a lot of product development in everything from fashion to electronics. Dragons, the imaginary ones that don’t exist, are pretty amazing — but to get from zero to dragon, you are going to have to do a lot of basic research and testing. And when we’re talking about engineering a living creature and all its complexities, this can yield ugly, not-quite-dragon, results.

So, is it worth it? Should we bioengineer a dragon? Share your thoughts below!

Part II – Design

07 Jan

Plant Blindness – Can’t see the forest

Do you suffer from planta ablepsia? Common symptoms include not spending enough time in wild places, being unable to identify what part of which plant generates the french fry, and thinking of plants as “biological wallpaper”

blog post plant blindness banana leaf A banana leaf – trillions of cells turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into a beautifully geometric wallpaper for your computer screen.

Plants are everywhere, but people tend to ignore them. As time spent in the woods becomes time spent in front of a screen, it’s easy to go through life without having to look closely at the green things around us. This has become known as plant blindness and it’s something that botanists, educators, and gardeners across the world are working to end.

blog post plant blindness allOne plant, many uses. A) Banana; B) Banana C) Banana D) Banana

We depend on plants not only for the food we eat, what we feed our animals, and the fibers we wear, but for their role in maintaining a living planet. Plants breathe with us, consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. They purify water and release it into the atmosphere, influencing the water cycle. They provide habitat for animals and insects, and tie soil to the landscape, maintaining a healthy ecosystem capable of sustaining life.

“…people don’t understand that plants are absolutely integral to our survival and the survival of every other living thing on the planet. We could not live without them.” – Thomas A Block, Director Morris Hill Arboretum

Our understanding of these processes is not complete, neither within a plant nor on a global scale. Forests pull up to 30% of the carbon dioxide humans produce out of the air and into their timber – but we don’t know the best way to manage them to mitigate climate change. Botanical research and seed preservation face devastating budget cuts, weakening our ability to study biodiversity and improve conservation efforts. Even with growing interest in local farming and protecting the environment, there is a long way to go before plants are appreciated the way they need to be.

blog post plant blindness tree
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. Plant, study and preserve for the next generation.

Plants are more than just background scenery – they have a critical role to play in our future. We hope our color-changing flower will ignite a new fascination with plants, inspiring people to take a second look at the tree in their backyard and the flowers in their garden.

References:
Botanists battle ‘plant blindness’ with seeds of knowledge in the Philadelphia Post by V.A. Smith