Years ago, Homer Simpson stood in the family’s kitchen and showed Marge his latest creation: a big bowl of homemade Prozac. Homer dug his wooden spoon in, plucked out a mound of the purply goop, and downed it. “Mmm, needs more ice cream,” Homer said.
As is so often the case, it seems Homer was well ahead of his time. Tuur Van Balen, a Belgian designer, has been making the speaking-circuit rounds, showing audiences how to inject yogurt bacteria with antidepressant qualities, making it possible for anyone to have a feel-good breakfast treat. “So, what if instead of just feeding you, (your morning breakfast) caters to your pharmaceutical needs as well?” Van Balen said during a recent demonstration. “I think that is just spectacular.” This work falls under the budding field of synthetic biology, where folks of all stripes have started to mess around with altering the properties of organisms by tweaking their DNA.
As Van Balen explains, it takes about five days to make an antidepressant-infused yogurt. First, you need to get some Lactobacillus bacteria—a component of yogurt that can aid with digestion and is often found at health food stores. Then you want to multiply the Lactobacillus cells by mixing them with agar (a sort of seaweed-based food) and incubating the mixture overnight. You can buy an incubator or build your own, as Van Balen has—of course—done.
The next step is where the fun really starts. You hop onto the Registry of Standard Biological Parts website, where it’s possible to download DNA sequences. “This is the wet dream of all synthetic biologists,” Van Balen explained. “Within about four mouse clicks, you can get down to DNA code.” For this particular demonstration, Van Balen picked an 860-letter string of DNA that would give his bacteria some antidepressant oomph.
While onstage, Van Balen then discussed how you can order a synthetic version of this DNA online, have it mailed to you, and then mix it with the homegrown bacteria. With the help of a centrifuge, a high-voltage electrical shock, some antibiotics, and patience, you eventually end up with a modified bacteria that can be used as the base of a yogurt culture. To prove his point, Van Balen dished out jars of this homemade yogurt to the audience members to let them have a taste.
It’s unclear if they felt the mixture needed more ice cream.
Van Balen has made a name for himself doing these kinds of experiments in a bid to prove how accessible synthetic biology has become. Quite often he relies on homemade apparatuses or parts he buys on eBay to cut down on the costs of things like incubators and centrifuges. Last year he created a bacteria that could be fed to pigeons to turn their poop into liquid cleaner. “It basically makes pigeons defecate soap,” Van Balen said.