As growing numbers of DIY “biohackers” can attest, extracting DNA from cells is an easy process. And you don’t need anything special to do it: various household products, like soap and isopropyl alcohol, have the chemical properties required. For NOVA’s upcoming program “Cracking Your Genetic Code,” PBS has made a short promotional video demonstrating how you can draw your DNA out from a sample of cheek cells, and, with the help of a little food coloring, actually see it yourself.
The three steps are pretty much exactly what scientists do when extracting DNA in the lab. First, you collect cells in salt water, which is similar to buffer solutions used in labs. Then, break them open with soap (in the lab, a detergent like Triton-X), which disturbs the molecules of the cell and nuclear membranes so the DNA can leak out. Lastly, use alcohol to separate the DNA from the salt water: Once in the alcohol, which is less polar than water, the DNA will form clumps and precipitate out, becoming visible as clusters of white strings.
The video is a neat reminder that what happens in labs isn’t magic: it’s just basic chemistry.
For years, solar energy researchers have tried to imitate the success of photosynthesis by building devices like an artificial leaf and a solar cell that hijacks chemistry of photosynthetic bacteria. Now researchers at MIT have come up with an innovative technique that also happens to be very cheap: all you need is some “stabilizing powder” and plant waste. Mowed your lawn lately?
The stabilizing powder is a mix of safe, easily attainable chemicals that preserves photosystem I, a protein complex that captures light energy in plant cells. (In contrast, the newest photovoltaic cells in solar panels require metals that are rare or toxic.) The powder is mixed with plant matter such as grass clippings and crushed, and the resulting green goo is spread onto glass or metal substrate. Hook up wires to capture the electric current and that’s your solar panel.
The efficiency of these solar panels is only 0.1%, compared to the 15 to 18% efficiency of solar panels out in the market right now. Lead researcher Andrew Mershin says the technology still needs to improve 10-fold to become practical. After all, being able to power only one lightbulb with a whole house covered in solar panels isn’t much help. But the great advantage of all this is that it’s easy and
dirt grass cheap. Because the barrier to entry is so low, anyone would be able to order a bag of chemicals and make their own solar panel. Mershin hopes home tinkerers experiment with the cells and find new ways to make improvements.
Correction, February 6: We eliminated a reference to mulch in the headline: mulch is low in chlorophyll, so it wouldn’t actually work for these plant-powered solar cells.
Finally! After teasers released in March whetted our appetites, this maker’s dream is now airing: This week National Geographic’s DIY show “How Hard Can It Be?”, the team satisfies your hunger to see Carl Fredricksen’s balloon-propelled house in the flesh—using around 300 technicolor weather balloons and a lightweight cottage that the team was still stapling together just hours before it rose into the sky, to bob along at 10,000 feet. You can’t not root for this spunky bunch (even though this first video ends in a cliffhanger):
Luckily, with a bit of searching on the NatGeo site, you can find the clincher:
When they launched the balloon a few months ago, Wired did some back-of-the-envelope calculations on the physics involved here. Though Wired didn’t address this, we suspect that one reason they couldn’t use party balloons is that the pressure from balloons on the outside of the cluster pushing in on the ones in the center would cause them to burst. What do you think?