Meet Bento Lab, the DIY DNA tester for your kitchen, or anywhere

23 Feb 2016

Image via Bento Bio

What if you could take the power of genetics testing in the lab and miniaturise it down to a portable box? Well, that’s what the Bento Lab is trying to do.

Bento Bio, the start-up behind the Bento Lab, were one of the memorable speakers at yesterday’s (22 February) SynBio Future 2016 event at University College Cork (UCC), which looked at where the next advances in synthetic biology (synbio) are coming from.

One of the themes running right through the event was the transitioning of synbio from the confines of the large, expensive lab, to an area that can be achieved by biohackers using 3D printing and open source technology that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

But what if you could buy a portable genetics testing kit that would be portable enough to take out to the field, quite literally, or not look out of place as a device you’d find in a modern kitchen?

For example, what if you buy a packet of mince from a supermarket and run the Bento Lab to see what meat it actually is, at a genetic level. After all, it’s not that long ago since the horsemeat scandal rocked the food industry, with questions over the source of meat being raised.

Bento Lab office

Image via Bento Bio

Year-round access to lab equipment

Founded by Bethan Wolfenden and Philipp Boeing, Bento Bio and its Bento Lab came about following the pair’s work with the synbio non-profit accelerator iGEM, where they realised that outside of the lab equipment provided through it, they had little or no access to equipment during the summer months.

However, it was only following a spell with a biohacking team in London that the pair realised that a DIY starter lab was well within reach, albeit with a lot of tinkering.

While still in beta development, the lab is designed for beginner DNA tinkerers and up, with the key components including the centrifuge to extract the DNA, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to copy the DNA and a gel electrophoresis to visualise it.

Portability was key

Speaking at the event was Wolfenden, who showed the rather small, aesthetically pleasing box to an obviously interested audience and, speaking with afterwards, said the entire process of developing such a kit has been rather fluid, with what they had originally envisioned morphing over time.

Following discussions with field researchers, she said: “[During development] we also encountered a need that we hadn’t anticipated for this sort of equipment.

“For example, field researchers. Our idea was the cost was the USP, and actually one of the USPs is the portability and the fact you can take it anywhere, which isn’t really what current lab equipment is designed for.”

Bento Lab car

Image via Bento Bio

Rise of self-genetic testing

But the obvious question is how exactly you are able to shrink an entire lab into a box the size of an A4 piece of paper?

“With a PCR machine in a lab, you have the option to put a scale on it and have different temperatures across the block and that’s not something we’re at,” said Wolfenden. “Also, robustness. We’re redesigning it at the moment as currently the lab will last around five years, whereas normal lab equipment will last up to 40 years.”

It’s the beginner element, though, that Wolfenden and Bentio Bio sees as its target market, noting specifically the rising interest in home self-genetic testing services like 23andMe that are now available.

Getting a kickstart

Whether it will actually become a viable market, though, outside of a limited few remains to be seen, said Wolfenden, but it’s definitely an area the company’s looking at in terms of DIY biologists.

To be priced starting from £499 (€635), the Bento Labs will begin shipping this summer for the first time, having undergone beta testing with 20 kits, but its aim is to push its capabilities further, with a Kickstarter campaign due to begin next month.

As for the future, well, Wolfenden says the future will be modular – hence it being named Bento Lab, after the Bento box concept.

“We had imagined it originally as pieces that would slot together, so, looking forward, we’re quite keen to have those different accessories you’d want to add on.”

Bento Lab screen

Image via Bento Bio

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic