09 May 2016
As the name suggests, Bento Lab is a small, portable box, but rather than containing your lunch, inside is an all-in-one DNA laboratory suitable for both professionals and beginners. The size of a small briefcase and weighing around 5kg, it allows you to extract DNA from biological samples such as hair and saliva, target a specific piece of DNA, such as a single gene, and then discover which variant of the gene it is.
The team that designed Bento Lab set up a Kickstarter campaign in March with the aim of raising £40,000 to start mass-producing the units. Within a matter of days they'd exceeded their target, and funding has now closed with over £150,000 raised. The fact that there were over 700 backers shows that it's not just hobbyists who want to see these mobile molecular labs made available to the masses. Bento Lab has wider appeal, which says something about the public's enthusiasm for access to genetic technology.
But the technology raises an interesting question – should we be freely able to look for the genetic variants we carry? Some of the applications Bento Lab suggest for their unit include testing for the presence of a particular variant of the ACTN3 gene – a gene associated with athletic performance – or testing for your genetic predisposition to lactose intolerance. Other applications that Bento Lab agree are possible, but not suggested, include using the unit to conduct paternity testing or to test for health-related genetic variants.
Now, for genetically inherited traits such as eye colour, I don't think these necessitate a discussion with a genetic counsellor or medical professional. However, identifying the variants associated to Alzheimer's Disease, Huntington's Disease or HIV resistance would be just one Google search away, and I find the thought of an individual testing themselves for these without guidance or support chilling.
It's been possible to order DNA tests online to take at home since 2004, and many companies have grappled with how to provide information to the layman responsibly. 23andMe offer DNA testing for both genetic genealogy and ancestry – but they can also test for variants linked to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. They have experimented with separating these results from the main report, but ensure that you read and sign an online disclaimer to access them.
In my opinion this falls short of requiring the customer to demonstrate informed consent before purchasing life-changing information, and although legislation currently moving through the European Parliament is likely to mandate genetic counselling both before and after tests like these are purchased, enforcement of such legislation is many years away. When you take consumer genetics companies such as 23andMe out of the equation and allow anyone to test for genetic variants with a personal DNA testing lab such as Bento Lab, it becomes that much harder to protect people through regulation.
Over and above the well-known single-gene disorders such as Huntington's disease, there's no shortage of studies suggesting lesser-known genetic associations. The validity of these studies depends on dozens of factors, such as the number of participants, the gender and ethnicity of those participants, the number of supporting studies, and so on. After deciding which variant to test for, would your average genetic enthusiast read all those papers that support the association? Would they be able to understand them if they did and, more importantly, would they be able to understand their limits?
There are also polygenic conditions to consider. It would be a simple matter to look for the variants associated to breast cancer that caused Angelina Jolie to opt for a double mastectomy, but there may be hundreds or even thousands of genes associated with cancer, and it's only when we see and understand them in combination that we can interpret the results meaningfully.
There's no doubt that a portable DNA laboratory could be an incredible tool for professionals capable of understanding the results it can produce. The applications for education are equally astounding, especially given that Bento Lab are already working with schools to bring the unit into classrooms. This development could well give rise to a new generation of molecular biologists and geneticists, empowering us all to advance our understanding at an accelerated rate.
The Bento Lab team say they created the unit for both beginners and professionals, with a remit to provide universal access to molecular biology laboratories and specialist knowledge. This a truly admirable goal, but Bento Lab is also part of a movement to democratise the means of accessing information in our DNA. With legislation moving as sluggishly as it is, the public could quietly develop the ability to understand themselves like never before, and the consequences of this could be much less desirable.