Interview: Bethan Wolfenden – co-creator of Bento Lab, the DNA lab that fits in a laptop bag

Citizen scientists everywhere are throwing money at their monitors

Walk into a genetics laboratory and you’re usually surrounded by various pieces of equipment for preparing and analysing DNA samples. Quite often it’s the expensive equipment that takes up the most space , which means that scientists are limited as to where they can do their work. You can’t exactly carry an entire DNA lab around with you after all. Or can you?

Bento Lab is a tiny portable DNA analysis lab that could revolutionise citizen science when it comes to genetics. It’s a single machine that’s a self-contained bio lab letting you spin samples, amplify DNA, and run gels. The whole thing fits in a laptop bag, which is just incredible and will mean so much to scientists who work in the field or even at home.

Finally DNA analysis can be done on-site in remote locations; citizen scientists can work from their own bedrooms or garages; and school classes can do real genetics without the school having to buy an entire laboratory filled with equipment.

We spoke with co-founder Bethan Wolfenden about Bento Lab and the impact it could have.

Who is Bento Lab for?

We want Bento Lab to be a tool anyone working with DNA could use. We have recently asked over 500 people if they would use Bento Lab and how, and we got many examples. Field scientists for research on site  including diagnostics (water contamination, Ebola, Zika), wildlife crime (poaching in South Africa), evolution (crickets in the Alps), and analysis of biodiversity etc. There were hobbyist scientists such as biohackers exploring their DNA or testing food, foragers analysing mushrooms, brewers checking beer quality, and farmers testing animals.

Companies are interested, especially biotech start-ups developing research to get funding, or large companies encouraging innovation. There are teachers, students and science outreach professionals wanting to use Bento Lab to do hands-on education, and undergraduates wanting to take their thesis work home. Even some healthcare professionals want to use it, although we’re not building the lab as a medical device.

A lot of young students read about molecular biology and genetics but don’t really experience the work until university. Will you be working with schools to get Bento Lab to younger students?

Yes, we really want to! We have started running workshops in schools, and the students absolutely love getting hands-on with the science they’re learning about in class. Now we’re figuring out how we can best work with schools in a sustainable manner, as they have quite different needs from our other users.

We’re used to running between completely different equipment to spin samples, do PCR, and run gels. Was it challenging to design something that does it all?

When we started, we really wanted to create a device that was easy to transport (e.g. fit into a laptop bag) so that was our design constraint. Then we asked many people what they felt were the key tools for molecular biology/genetics. So once we had that form factor, although there there were design considerations, it came together really well.  I think from a design perspective, for us the challenge was more about understanding the environment we wanted to create, rather than technical challenges.

Some people have already been testing Bento Lab in the field. What’s your favourite story or use for the kit so far?

That’s really hard, I love all of our beta testers’ projects. We’ve started sharing some stories on our website. Two of the ones I like sharing best:

We have a group in North Wales that are foragers collecting fungi, who want to do species identification with DNA. The group leader David has set up a biolab in the corner of his garage, and they’re using Bento Lab to amplify DNA before they send it off for sequencing. They’re totally amazing, true citizen scientists before biohacking became cool. Out of all our beta testers, they’ve been the best at coming up with innovative solutions for fixing the hardware when there’s a weakness with the prototype.

We also have a former researcher, now a full-time citizen scientist, Gianpaolo running a project called Beer DeCoded in Switzerland. He’s sampling crowd-sourced beers to show how the yeast from different beers is genetically related, to example how the flavour of the beer related by the genetic make-up of the beer. He cycles around Geneva with Bento Lab to pop-up demos with people’s beer – a lab on a bike! And I also really love beer, so that probably influences my choice.

The BentoLab prototypes are working beautifully in the hands of testers and now the team wants to bring it to the masses. Bento Bio has just launched a Kickstarter campaign for manufacturing and is already three quarters of the way towards its £40,000 target. Backing starts at £3 and the cheapest that’s still available and rewards you with your own portable lab is £649.

All images © Bento Bio