Are your date nights stale? Does conversation lull as you come face to face with a wall of work week exhaustion heightened by the effects of wine and digestion only to realize every topic has been covered over the last 20 years? Are your date nights so predictable your husband resorts to a State of the Fridge address on the unequal milk to cereal ratio at home? After which the biggest revelation is that you’re out of cereal so the kids aren’t consuming the milk you keep buying which results in a staggering 0:3 carton ratio. Do similar conversations irritate you such that you begin to wonder if you married a genetic mutant? Are your date nights such yawners you begin to question your own genetics? Well wonder no more! You can uncover your genetic mysteries and get the dopamine flowing in your date night again simply by swabbing DNA on Flatbush Ave. No! I didn’t say SWAPPING DNA. Dial back the dopamine just a tad. My eternal hunt for unorthodox date nights led me this time to Genspace on Flatbush Avenue, where there was no swapping of DNA, but there was a pretty hot Polymerase Chain Reaction.
Genspace is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology. They are the first-ever community biotechnology laboratory. Genspace offers hands on biotech classes to people with no prior lab training in an effort to inform the public about science. The lab was recently crowned Maker Space of the Year at the Brooklyn Innovation Awards hosted by technical.ly. Now, a meet-up at a Biosafety Level One facility may not sound like an ideal date to you, but you’d be wrong because Genspace hosts many fun events, such as Sauerkraut and Kombucha making, as well as hands on Genome Editing. My husband and I recently made a date night of their simple PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) and Pizza Night.
When you first arrive at Genspace you maybe confused by the sound of birds. My husband and I were looking all over for the source of the chirping. Finally, we realized it was Birds of Brooklyn broadcast from a speaker above. Soon Genspace’s Community Manager, Alison Irvine, came down and led us through a rather mysterious building comprised of rented work spaces. This is the guts of the Brooklyn startup world. It was a perfect Roald Dahl vision, both curious and charismatically creepy. This building is the Chocolate Factory of Brooklyn’s tech dreams. On the way to the elevator, Alison led us past a room where the building’s owner stores a vast array of salvage materials. The place was pure imagination. Old met new around every corner. I emerged from the elevator to come face to face with an ironic statement about obsolescence—a phone booth. Peering into a work space where an explicit neon sign cursed, I mean, cast a glow on a series of computer screens rising out of the miscellany, I became convinced I could buy a Gremlin here. Sure it would be a 3D printed robot Gremlin programmed w/arduino to remind me not to put my spoon in the microwave, but a Gremlin none the less.
Turning away from what was not a Gremlin startup, I found Genspace and was welcomed by its co-founder and Executive Director Dr. Ellen Jorgensen. She informed us we were not the first couple to take their date night to Genspace. In fact, the last date resulted in her lab receiving a sizable contribution from Goldman Sachs! Looking around, there were no other couples in attendance this time but there were many singles—particularly single men in science fields who I suspect were looking to mix genetics outside the lab. So ladies—get off Tinder and get to Genspace!
However, we were not here to examine each other’s genetic attributes in quite that way. Dr. Ellen explained that we would be querying an aspect of our DNA to find out if we are mutants who are invincible to the HIV virus! There is a protein know as CCR5. It is a receptor on the outside of most white blood cells. The protein must be present in order for the HIV virus to attach to your white blood cells. If you have no DNA to make the CCR5 protein, the HIV virus cannot attach to your white blood cells and you are pretty much immune to AIDS. You must however be a double mutant, meaning you must have the mutation on both of your alleles (both of your parents needed to pass the mutation on to you). If you are heterozygous for this protein (only one parent passed along the mutation), you are not immune but would probably die slower from the virus. Dark stuff. Dr. Ellen has only come across one double mutant, a man in Russia.
I instantly wondered, “Did I marry a mutant?” In order to find the mutants among us, Dr. Ellen guided us throughs a simple PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) from start to finish using DNA from our cheek cells. We were handed q-tips and spent 60 seconds watching each other furiously swab the inside of our mouths. Sexy! We placed our cells in a test tube. We spun the test tubes in a centrifuge. Then we got to look like real scientists by holding our test tube up to the light to examine the resulting cell bead that formed. Dr. Ellen states, “This is where we find out if someone here is a robot because you won’t have any cells.” Rest assure, we all had cells. We extracted the cell bead with a pipetter and placed it in a new test tube which would be heated to break the bonds between the strands of DNA. While the DNA cooked it was time for pizza!
This gave me an opportunity to mingle with some of the other potential mutants. One was an architect, another an immigration attorney, a food scientist, a medical student, and others in fields related to biotech seeking more hands on lab time. Dr. Ellen has had “everyone from winemakers to prison guards,” use her lab. She is particularly interested in the work of genetic artists like Heather Dewey-Hagborg who has used the facilities at Genspace to create portraits based on the genetics collected from discarded chewing gum and cigarettes. Others have created portraits in bacteria.
We gave the test tubes one last spin in the centrifuge before heading out past the phone booth to the elevator. Conversation being the hallmark of a good date, I think we were successful. My husband and I had a lot to talk about on the ride down the Wonkavator and the abundance of milk in the fridge did not come up once. We considered returning for Sauerkraut Making and Genome Editing. (Who wouldn’t want to create their own mutant?) Wandering past the salvage materials again was a conversation starter in itself. I just know there’s a machine in there somewhere that makes Everlasting Gobstoppers! I could swear I distinctly heard Gene Wilder whisper from deep within the salvage, “Anything you want to. Do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.” Alas it was merely the din of the Birds of Brooklyn in the foyer.
As for whether my husband or I are mutants? That would have to wait for Dr. Ellen’s analysis of the results.