Guest post: Lab in a box

The following post was written by our resident (self confessed) protein geek, and good friend, Laura Mitchell. Laura is in her final year of Biochemistry at UCL and also did her placement at MedImmune in the Analytical Biochemistry team working on the development of mass spectrometry methods for observing antibody dynamics (fancy stuff)…


In response to Mike’s post on hands-on education science equipment: I recently stumbled across an even greater (and much less controversial) educational toy that is under development by UCL’s iGEM Entrepreneurship team:

The Darwin Toolbox.




It contains the core equipment required for playing with genes: a PCR for amplifying DNA, a centrifuge, a gel electrophoresis tank and a visualizer…all within a minimalistic 11 x 13 inch box. Data can be exported straight to a PC with the USB port. The device even synchronises PCR settings and electrophoresis images so understanding incomprehensible lab-book scribbles (e.g. about annealing temperatures & cycle times) becomes a thing of the past. Experiments and results can easily be shared with friends and collaborators online. The Darwin Toolbox team envisage future iterations of the device to be modular with a kind of pick’n’mix approach to other pieces of lab equipment such as a vortex, nanodrop or incubator.



Synthetic Biology has the potential to be a force for good. It’s predicted to have an impact on areas as diverse as health, agriculture, architecture, and even environmental remediation (undoing environmental damage). However, the Darwin Toolbox team noticed that the equipment and supplies required for meddling with DNA is prohibitively expensive, and so excludes “all but the leading universities and companies from becoming involved”.

Their aims are to reduce the cost of equipment; as affordability is a large part of accessibility. Hopefully improved access to the equipment will inspire greater numbers of kids to: A) get involved, but B) to experiment and create! This kind of technology could help deliver the talented minds required for fulfilling such grand aims of a young field.


The team have done it beautifully. The simplistic design is important for usability, but is also plain aesthetically pleasing. Their website and overall presentation is great too.

Synthetic Biology as a field has a very clean cut and modern face – probably due to the crossover of science with artists and designers, who are keen to explore ideas and address particular concerns surrounding the manipulation of biology. This project as a whole fits in perfectly into such a trendy arena.


In summary:

The lab-in-a-box is a cracking idea – although it’s still in development, the concept is very exciting. Techniques currently restricted to a university teaching-lab environment could be introduced to the school science-bench. Science homework might move away from model-cell building to constructing genetic circuits! The portable-lab technology could even inspire a generation of child prodigies like Jack Andraka; who at 14 years old came up with an idea for a cheap and effective pancreatic cancer early-detection device!  (not really Synthetic Biology, but I bet it involved some PCR and centrifuging).

Ultimately this in an enabling technology, for increasing access to Synthetic Biology. Perhaps the next shift in literacy (after teaching kids how to write code) will be in speaking the language of DNA.


All that’s left to say is good luck to the team!

Follow them on twitter @DarwinToolbox or visit their website here






Written by Livvi Harris

Livvi Harris

I am a first year PhD Wellcome Trust PhD student at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute currently carrying out a year of rotations, so I can’t quite tell you what my PhD is in yet! I am an ex-pharmacologist (or maybe current?!) from the University of Bath, with 15 months experience of industry after working for the oncology pharmacology team at MedImmune in Cambridge for my placement year.

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