What's the point of OpenPCR?

For those not in the know, PCR is a standard biological technique that lets you make lots of copies of a piece of template DNA. It’s crucial because a lot of molecular biology relies on having a large amount of a particular DNA, so it makes possible everything from DNA fingerprinting to genomics to forensics to getting bacteria to express a gene of interest. Its invention changed the face of modern biology.

Thermocyclers, the machines which do PCR, are expensive. Thousands of dollars expensive. And there’s no good reason for it because they’re pretty simple: they just need to reliably heat up and cool down sample tubes to allow the chemicals inside to do their job. In fact, early PCR machines were just three water baths, each at a specific temperature, between which a technician would move their samples.

OpenPCR is an open-source PCR machine. From Why we built OpenPCR:

There are really two core benefits I see to a machine like OpenPCR. The first is a drastically lower price point. … The second … was to create a substrate for further hacking.

I love it. I want one. It’s a really gorgeous machine, too, made of laser-etched wood panels with black rivets. And it’s cheap, with kits costing $599 and taking around three hours to assemble.

But who’s it for?

Hobbyists will certainly be attracted by the low price, but molecular biology requires a lot of kit. Thermocycler aside, you need primers for each reaction you want to carry out which often have to be custom-made, all the enzymes and reagents for the PCR itself, plus restriction enzymes and the equipment to run a gel to visualise the DNA you’ve amplified (so that’s agarose, buffer, DNA dye, an electrophoresis tank and a UV visualiser). Most of which has to be shipped refrigerated by companies which probably won’t sell to individuals.

I want to see home-brew biology flourish. I love the idea that you can analyse your own DNA to see if you have a particular polymorphism, or identify unlisted plant ingredients in commercial teas. But molecular biology has always been capital-intensive and as long as that’s the case, the kind of “garage biology” that OpenPCR’s inventors want to encourage will be out of reach for most.