This past weekend, we spent a day at Counter Culture Labs, a San Francisco Bay Area community lab promoting the biohacking and DIY science culture. The biohacking/DIY biology/citizen science movement seeks to empower anyone to study biology and perform interesting scientific experiments to learn more about the natural world and even themselves. Counter Culture Labs gained recent national attention for their Open Insulin Project, an endeavor to synthesize insulin from E. coli bacteria. As insulin on the market is currently protected by patents, the biohackers hope their new form of generic insulin will be cheaper and more accessible to diabetes patients.
Some of Counter Culture Labs’ other notable projects include vegan cheese made from cashews, a PABA-free sunblock derived from bacteria, and a “wine” made from fermented garlic and onions. All the biohackers are volunteers, some without any formal biology background. All the equipment in the lab was either donated from biotech/pharma companies or purchased with funds from a recent successful Kickstarter campaign which allowed the group to settle themselves in their new facility in Oakland.
We had an opportunity to spend the day at Counter Culture Labs for their annual “Ghost Heart” making workshop event. The Ghost Heart workshop is a combination Halloween/mad scientist-caliber experiment with a real-world tissue engineering application. The process essentially involved patching up pig hearts and pumping them full of various chemicals that would eventually cause them to turn a pale white color (see the video below). Aside from its otherworldy appearance, the ghost heart is nearly devoid of muscle fibers, protein, blood, and cells, and consists mostly of a collagen scaffold. In a more formal laboratory setting, our biohacker hosts explained, these heart shaped scaffolds can be reseeded with a patient’s own stem cells which can differentiate and grow and eventually be re-implanted back inside a patient.
In true DIY fashion, our ghost heart was made largely with off-the-shelf items, such as garden fountain pumps, super glue, Oxy Clean, and lots of Everclear to preserve our ghost heart. Pig blood got everywhere, and pumps repeatedly failed, but we eventually ended up with a creation someday suitable to re-implant in humans, and already ready to win your company’s Halloween party or the heart of your twisted mad scientist honey.
Special thanks to Counter Culture Labs for hosting us!