Few people would consider some inert E. coli bacteria and a bit of synthetic firefly DNA as the foundations for an “app.” But if you combine these two entities–by breeding the E. coli on a petri dish, softening its cell membranes in the right solution, and then introducing the DNA at just the right moment–you’ll end up with a glowing liquid that’s very much programmed and very much alive.
It’s what Julie Legault refers to as a living Tamagotchi, Frankensteined to life in a hardware platform called Amino that she began developing at MIT Media Lab. It’s an approachable wooden box that’s loaded with complicated chemistry equipment, but designed to be easy enough for anyone to get started in their own mad scientist experiments to grow new life–from glowing bacteria, to tasty yeast strains for home brewing–with progress that can be monitored through a phone.
The box itself is made of waterproofed wood, chosen for its “idea of the homeyness and old-school lab and school furniture,” according to Legault. Inside the box is a series of chambers which can do anything from feed your micro-pets, to warm them, to control their pH levels. An LCD screen, coupled with indicator lights, can guide you through otherwise complex scientific processes.
“We are carefully calibrating the user experience between automation and hands-on… too little hands-on activity and it is harder to stay engaged, emotionally and scientifically; too much and it is confusing and laborious,” Legault says. “We think we have struck the right balance–engaged enough to learn and care, yet easy and intuitive enough for beginners. Of course, as you get more comfortable in the science, you discover more possibilities with Amino.”
If you were wondering, yes, there is a self-cleaning cycle! Another user-friendly creature comfort is that the sensors are automated and built right into the box. optical density, pH, and temperature are all measurable via app, which provide critical feedback to the less-scientifically inclined, to demonstrate the exponential, but often invisible, forces at play in microbiological tinkering.
“This is critical for making sure people can stay involved in the entire journey, even when it seems like nothing is happening to the naked eye,” Legault explains. “It provides them with the feedback needed to play with and take care of their cells.”
Over time, Amino will release more apps, priced at a few hundred dollars apiece, which contain the biological components, food, and chemicals needed to do things like develop yogurt strains or fragrances. Other scientists could develop their own apps for the platform as well, creating a whole ecosystem–much like Apple’s own App Store–of turnkey experiences to try out. “You could even practice making medicine,” the already successful Indiegogo campaign promises.
And even if that promise sounds more than a little optimistic, it sure does sound more fun than feeding our old Tamagotchi.