January 13, 2016

Thinking Outside the Lunch-box: How Bento Bioworks is Building a Better Hardware for Biology

Bento Bioworks
Bento lab is the first complete personal laboratory, complete with a PCR machine, a centrifuge and a gel electrophoresis unit with blue LED transillumination.

The rise of the DIY-Bio movement, essentially biotechnology for everyone, has led to a corresponding need for low cost equipment. This is a need targeted by several products, including commercial devicessuch as the OpenPCR and Open qPCR thermocyclers, the liquid handling robot OpenTrons, and the lab platform Aminoand the do-it-yourself variants such as the OpenFuge. The majority, however, require significant fiddling by the scientist-to-be in order to set up a complete laboratory.

Aiming to solve this problem is Bento Bioworks, who are currently producing a low-cost, integrated laboratory-in-a-box, the Bento Lab.

Bento was previously known as Darwin Toolbox, growing out of a University College London student group brought together for the 2013 iGEM competition (iGEM is a long running and highly successful student synthetic biology competition). The successful reception of their idea and prototype led to further work, and Darwin Toolbox changed into Bento in 2014 in order to better match their “mission of supporting open, creative and personal biotech”, which can probably be taken as meaning ‘we’re now a serious start-up’. The team is currently seven strong, led by co-founders Philipp Boeing and Bethan Wolfenden, and covers a range of engineering and design disciplines.

Bethan Wolfenden

Bethan Wolfenden speaking at SynBioBeta London 2015.

So what comes in a Bento Lab? No rice, fish, or vegetables, the box instead contains a set of laboratory equipment which acts as a ‘starter kit’ for biotech workers. This includes a thermocycler/PCR machine, for all your cloning needs, with a 12-sample capacity. Finished PCR amplifications can be analysed using the integrated gel electrophoresis tank and transilluminator, while a small 12,000 rpm centrifuge with safety lock rounds out the selection.

The current version is stated to be 30x21x5cm, weighing about 3kg – essentially the same dimensions and weight as a PlayStation 4 (the graphics are, however, not quite as impressive).

The system itself is currently in the beta-testing phase, a term derived from software development in which the almost-complete product is shown to a small group of potential consumers for the first time. This, indeed, is what is occurring – 15 of the kits have been sent out to researchers, educators, biohackers and artists for a mere £450 per kit.

This is excellent value for money for those needing to do biotech on the cheap. Factory-fresh thermocyclers can easily cost thousands of dollars, though cheaper alternatives do exist (there is also a thriving second-hand market on EBay, for those looking to set up their own lab). Reaching this low price requires some trade-offs, naturally, with lower fidelity in cycling accuracy being a likely one. However, as co-founder Philipp Boeing commented, “for education, prototyping or field work it might be OK to trade this off and have 99 per cent accuracy, rather than 99.9, if the kit is a tenth of the price.” This level of accuracy is sufficient for identifying genes via PCR – indeed biotech has long utilised the workhorse that is Taq polymerase despite its low replication fidelity.

Combined with the other components of the system, the Bento Lab represents an interesting ‘all-in-one’ choice for those looking to get their feet wet in biotech research. In particular, it allows enthusiasts to go from a sample to pure DNA and then amplify marker genes, all with a single piece of equipment. These steps underlie much of modern biotechnology and indeed are almost required in biochemistry and genetics university subjects – this equipment brings these skills into the reach of school students. Beta-testers provided with Bento Lab kits have already begun testing food samples to verify their identity, perhaps the DIY-Bio crowd will help uncover the next horse meat scandal?

Readers who are interested in hearing more about the Bento Lab are encouraged to come along to SynBioBeta London 2016, where we will be hearing more about their work.