I’ve got good news and bad news. First the good news: there are a lot of DIY PCR machine guides and how to’s out there. The bad news is building DIYbio Lab equipment is a different beast from doing the type of bio projects where you are actually messing with the biology. Creating lab equipment is going to mean working with electronics. That’s going to mean wiring, possibly programming (in some cases) and other types of hacking that may not be so much up your alley. Back to the good news. The guides for a lot of the DIY PCR machines are fairly detailed (unlike some other projects I’ve run into that, while fantastic, are pretty much worthless to a novice given how little info they have). Below are two projects and links to their sources so that you can tackle one of these on your own.
DIY PCR Thermocycler Machine (Cheap and Easy)
This first DIY PCR machine is by far the easier of the two. You’re going to need some 4 inch PVC pipe, a light bulb, a fan from a computer, a drill bit, and a few electronics. All in all, if you have some of the things already (like access to a drill) you can get this one done for about thirty dollars. Not bad, considering that a normal PCR machine can go for thousands. Credit goes to Russell Durrett for this one. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, he is a part of the DIYbio movement in NYC. You can find full instructions for this on on Russell’s website. You can also check out the write-up that Popular Science did on the thing (they call it a “Gene Machine”). It has a few details and a better spec view of what’s going on. For example, when I went to buy the Arduino, I didn’t know which one to get. This write-up steered me in the right direction with an Arduino Uno. Another update, as I’m farther along in the process here, is with regards to the Arduino and how to actually make this sucker work. You’ll have to excuse me, my background is not in coding or electrical engineering. The guys over at basementbiotech.org have a video that walks through the arduino setup. Warning, if you know nothing of circuitry, circuit boards, or programming, this will still not be ground zero. I have, however, created a Beginners Guide to Arduino as a resource for those that need to start with square one.
Also, I’m in the middle of building this one out, so when I get it up and running, I’ll likely have my own walk through. (No offense to my DIYbio friends, but their instructions are sometimes off. In Russell’s video, for example, he calls for a 3-4 inch coupler of PVC for the cap on this sucker, but it’s actually a 2-4 inch coupler). If you’re truly determined to tackle a PCR machine on your own and you don’t have a lot of electrical or machine shopping experience, this is going to be the perfect place for you to start out.
DIY PCR Machine (advanced, approx $85)
This project is pretty involved, the list of components needed include wiremound resistors, thermal epoxies, solid state couplers. Oh, it also calls for you to machine cut a large block of aluminum in order to house some of the components. Hey, I warned you it was involved.
If you want to see the entire list of instructions and components on this one, check out this instructables page. Credit goes to Stacey Kuznetsov and Matt Mancuso for the initial design. For those that want to tackle it, knock yourself out. For those of you that think this may be a bit overboard for your current level of experience, I’d suggest one of two things. First, try the easier DIY PCR machine. Or, if you want to take the easier way out…
Buy a PCR Machine Kit
I’ve been there. I’ve been guilty of saying things like, why make it when I can buy it? After all, if someone is really good at making something, let them make it quickly and you can spend time on areas where you are an expert. This hearkens back to an economics principle I learned a long time ago in school. (Admittedly, I’m using it as an out for being lame enough on a DIYbio site to say that lazy people can DIY sometimes and buy it others. I’m not sure how guilty I feel about this position). Either way, if you want this more precise version of a PCR machine, you can buy an PCR Machine kit from OpenPCR. It’s still technically DIY, but with only assembly required. OpenPCR claims that you can build the entire thing in three hours using just a two screw driver and a pair of pliers. The catch? You can forget about it being under $100. This one comes in at a much more pricey $599.
Lastly, a DIY PCR machine is great, but what do you want to tackle after that? Well, if you’re completely lost. You could always start out with a PCR kit to get the hang of it. This may not be a bad idea anyway, as you should probably test your new machine to see if it is working properly. Check out some of these PCR kits from Carolina.com.