What desktop 3-D printers and laser cutters did for amateur makers the world over, Bento Bio would like to do for anyone with a budding interest in molecular biology.
Based out of the Makerversity in London, the six-person start-up made up of scientists, engineers and designers just closed out a Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $221,000 for the Bento Lab, a portable do-it-yourself DNA analysis kit. (The start-up and what it makes share the name.)
With the Bento Lab, even someone with a rudimentary understanding of biology can conduct simple genomic experiments: checking a hamburger to see if it contains horse meat, analyzing the amount of yeast in different beers or investigating if you're a good candidate for running the next marathon by testing your variation of the "athlete gene."
"Most people use software; some people write software. We want to engage with people who want to engage with science but maybe not 'write' science," said Philipp Boeing, the 26-year-old co-founder of Bento Bio. "Bento Lab itself is just a generic lab tool, but it's a piece of hardware that you could learn how to use in an afternoon."
What's contained in the Bento Lab, which is slightly smaller than the size of a shoe box, is indeed what one would expect to find in a proper molecular biology lab anywhere in the world: a centrifuge for extracting DNA samples, a PCR thermocycler, which copies the genes, and a gel electrophoresis unit, which visualizes the DNA samples by size so the person using the Bento Lab can interpret the results.
Biological samples themselves can be a variety of things — saliva and hair follicles, for instance — and the starter Bento Lab kit comes with everything a person needs to extract DNA and start doing experiments. Essentially, what the Bento Lab does is separate DNA fragments by size to help determine the presence or absence of something, like whether your hamburger patty contains any traces of horse meat or whether your kid contains a variation of the "athlete gene" ACTN3 and is a potential sports player in the making.
Boeing and his co-founder, Bethan Wolfenden, started developing the Bento Lab kit while undergraduates at University College London. Today, Boeing works full-time as the managing director of Bento Bio, while Wolfenden splits her time between the start-up and completing a doctorate in philosophy and synthetic biology.
The Bento Lab itself costs a little less than $800. Early users of the Bento Lab have been testing the start-up's first-generation machine for some months now. Bento Bio advertised on the start-up's Kickstarter page should begin shipping worldwide, including to the United States, by September, and Boeing hopes they'll have "300 active users" of their DNA kit by year's end. As for funding: Aside from what they've raised through Kickstarter, Boeing and Wolfenden have put up their own money.
"We started this as undergrads at university. For now we're happy to have no debt anymore," said Boeing.
Where Bento Lab differs from some of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits already on the market is that the results of experiments are delivered much more quickly. After all, the machine is portable. Companies like 23andMe, on the other hand, require users to send saliva samples to the lab and wait 12 weeks while those samples are being analyzed.
What sort of market exists for these more educational and do-it-yourself DNA kits is yet to be seen, although start-ups that do work similar to Bento Lab say people are interested.
"It's clear that health-conscious consumers are interested in self-tracking," said Marc DeJohn, co-founder and engineering lead at Biomeme.
The Philadelphia-based start-up sells a real-time PCR thermocycler that attaches to a person's iPhone and can deliver results on the presence or absence of a certain genetic marker — a specific DNA sequence — in under an hour. In April at TechDay New York, Biomeme demonstrated how its equipment could be used to do things, like test for mutations in the MTHFR gene — which have been linked to dementia and other diseases — or identifying mislabeled sushi.
"Everything from human genetics to environmental engineering is possible on small personal devices," DeJohn said.
But do-it-yourself genetic tests, especially the direct-to-consumer ones, can be controversial. It's DNA analysis without physician approval, and those who study the genome for a living caution against performing at-home DNA testing to determine something as grave as whether you carry the genetic marker that indicates increased chances for a type of cancer or other medical condition.
"When you're talking about the impact of your genes on you, there are some genetic variations that have a really, really strong effect all the way to ones that don't matter at all," said Dr. Lawrence Brody, the director of the Division of Genomics and Society at the National Human Genome Research Institute. "A lot of genes come in many different flavors. The idea that most of your genetic identity encodes your destiny is not really true."
But the Bento Lab isn't designed or marketed as something for conducting paternity tests or determining such medically relevant genetic markers like one that might indicate an increased chance of breast cancer, for example. Boeing says the team has made a "curatorial decision" in what to include in the Bento Lab kit that will be available to consumers.
"If you're trying to identify any genetic sample, you need a marker to search for a particular gene. We're giving you a range of markers, but if you want to look for something outside of that scope, you have to get a marker from somewhere else," he said.
For that reason, the Bento Lab doesn't necessarily need Food and Drug Administration approval, although the agency said it needs to review direct-to-consumer genetic tests to make sure they're safe and do what they claim to do.
"Without FDA review, the agency is concerned that the limitations or risks associated with these tests may not be adequately characterized or communicated to the patient and could lead to patient harm," an FDA spokeswoman told CNBC.
For now, the focus for Bento Bio is on educational and experimental activities, and enabling those interested in molecular biology to conduct simple experiments at home instead of inside labs that contain tens of thousands of dollars of equipment.
"It's important for the science that comes out of it," said Boeing. "In biotechnology we're still in the age where the products are made by people who know about the material rather than thinking about the applications. We see ourselves as part of tools to engage in biology in a different way."
— By Andrew Zaleski, special to CNBC.com