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An interview with Julie Legault: Founder and CEO of Amino Labs Inc.
As an enthusiast and synthetic biology practitioner, what attracts me most of our field is how fast is spreading and how people from different domains start to ask questions and to get interested in what we do. In the past year, I’ve heard over and over the word ‘democratization’ of synbio, which is the idea of making synthetic biology (and science in general) more available and understandable to the lay public. This certainly is no easy task. In fact, people wonder if it is even possible, and if it is, how do we do it?
While only time will give definitive answers to these questions, today I would like to tell you the story of Julie Legault and her company Amino Labs: ‘The company pioneering accessible bioengineering in the home and school’.
Originally a designer, Julie walked into the field of synthetic biology almost by accident. Julie’s time at MIT (she holds a Masters of Science from the MIT Media Lab) was ‘coincident with Joi Ito’s growing interest in synthetic biology as the new digital,’ says Julie [Joi Ito is director of the MIT Media Lab and a Professor of the Practice in Media Arts and Sciences]. At that time Ito was getting interested in synthetic biology. He started saying that biology is going to be the new digital, but no one was doing synthetic biology in his lab. To try and bring people together to understand what this new science was he put on a workshop, which I helped organize,’ says Julie.
In the workshop, they created a compound called violacein purple: ‘Not only I learned how to engineer a bacteria so that it synthesizes a compound, but I also learned that you could apply this synthetic biology approach to create specific compounds, like scents,’ Julie says.
Julie explains that ‘at the same time I was also researching for my own project how we can use smells and odours to recreate memories and modulate emotions. The work was directed to autistic children to try and understand how we can help them to be calmer in stressful situations, or the opposite (being more engaged). The main issue for me was how to create the smell. This was a chemistry problem, which I was not familiar with.’
From the workshop, Julie learnt that you could use synthetic biology to make smells that react to hormones, and it was completely applicable to her research: ‘I was mind blown by the idea that I could use a very simple procedure to do this because during the workshop we managed to reprogram a bacterium, grow it and produce the molecule of interest. I was a science newbie, as the other workshop participants, but we all managed to carry out the experiment. I got convinced that biology was something that anyone could do, with practical applications that designers or computer programmers could start to use, right now!’
However, things were about to get a lot more complicated. When Julie decided to apply synthetic biology to her research to synthesize the ‘smells’ she needed, she got a lab space at MIT in the bioengineering department: ‘What I found out in the first three months is that it was actually impossible to do it on my own. The ease with which I had done the first workshop could not be translated into a real lab situation where I had no one to guide me, and I did not have access to the same materials.’
But the potential of synthetic biology as an instrument for everyone, for instance also for designers such as Julie herself, was too great to let go. Julie’s desire to gather basic knowledge of synthetic biology and being able to do it on her own, and her will to democratize that experience she had in MIT, translated into the creation of Amino Labs Inc: ‘Amino is trying to recreate that moment that I had during the workshop, that privilege [to do science] for everyone. I took the engineering approach to my problem. I could not do it in the lab, so I might as well create my own lab. The hope is that as more people create companies and create similar products and as accessible bio grows, there will be products that will help you through the whole trajectory from the first experiment to creating something.’
The flag product of Amino Labs is their ‘Bioproduction Lab™’ kit. The kit allows the user to manufacture pigments through the engineering of bacteria and organisms. The kit comes with a manual with easy to understand vocabulary and step by step procedures and the online simulation experiment simulation to practice with, teach you fundamentals and guide you along the way.
Amino Labs is targeting at first a very young audience: mainly teenagers and kids from twelve years old till undergrad. ‘It is not exclusive, but we found that, if by the age of 16 you haven’t been hooked on science, the chances of you continuing into science are very low. We want to make sure that kids get an experience of synbio or genetic engineering that is not based on the traditional theory and that shows you that [these disciplines] have practical applications (not only medicine but also materials, smells etc).’
And for the future, Julie revealed that there are many directions in which Amino Labs will evolve. Firstly, they would like to offer more themes, ‘we are producing pigments at the moment, but we would also like to do smells, for instance. In particular, we are developing kits to engineer smells that should come out this year, and have a few partnerships in the work to bring more experiences out. In the future, we will be offering the capability of building your own DNA programs from a library of parts, very similar to the arduino kits out there, which will really open up infinite creative possibilities.’ The development of the hardware is also very important: ‘we want to add more modules, such as a purification one for example. At the moment we are focusing on producing a robust transformation module and continuous culturing one.’ Amino Labs wishes to also expand ‘on the idea of doing this at home: by going through the school first we want to achieve this in the long term, based on the idea that if your children are doing it at school and then they show it to you at home you will be less scared to try it out.’ Finally, they will focus on hiring more people to be able to transition to large volume manufacturing in order for their product to be accessible to a wider range of consumers.
I share the dreams and hopes of Julie: for Amino Labs to be only the first of many examples of companies embracing the need of bringing synthetic biology and whichever other scientific disciplines to the public. Amino Labs is also a wonderful example of how design and synthetic biology can work together to create an appealing product for educational purposes: to many more of these collaborations!
You can follow Julie on Twitter @juliequart