Eglė recently took a piece of Technarium BioLab to the National Academy of Students’ annual session in Palanga. Biochemistry & chemistry students were introduced to citizen science and biohacking, as concepts and sources of inspiration to do real science in their own back yards (or kitchens). Then everybody had a chance to hack some lichens, which have been collected the previous day by Eglė.


[Lichens collected in the forests of Švenčionių raj (samples 1-5). Photo by Eglė]

The original plan was to go collect some local lichen samples in Palanga, but it was about -15C outside, and as somewhat anticipated, the students weren’t very keen to freeze! (That’s OK though, they may still adopt scientific idealism later in their careers…)

Nevertheless, everybody installed EpiCollect+ app on their phones and mock-collected the lichens that were already in the class, by entering some basic data (e.g. species name, if known), taking pictures & coordinates of each “sample”.


[Students “sampling” lichens with EpiCollect+ app on their smartphones. Photo by Neringa Butnoriūtė/NMA]

As obvious from the “map of samples” created on EpiCollect+, not everyone’s GPS receivers were spot on! :) The points around A1 are also not authentic – that’s Egle setting up EpiCollect+ form and adding all her lichens on her bus ride to Palanga… (This serves as a very good example of what not to in science! :) ). The entries and the map can be accessed here


[Map of “geolocated” lichen samples at the camp in Palanga (above) and on A1 (below). Screenshot from EpiCollect+]

Regardless – the purpose was to introduce students to citizen science tools that could easily be applied in their own bio(hacking) projects, and it went very well!

Then time came for doing some hands-on “lab” work, with a modest selection of equipment from Technarium BioLab. Tools included:


[Lichens samples and equipment for DNA extraction. Photo by Neringa Butnoriūtė/NMA]

2 Pipetmans (for 20 people – not a problem though, it only takes teamwork to make it work!)

1 micro centrifuge, which for some reason prompted a lot of excitement amongst the students, including wonderment of “what will happen if we accidentally don’t balance it out?” – which in fact happened on one occasion, causing the centrifuge to produce an uncomfortable ear-piercing sound which induced even more excitement… The micro centrifuge also proved to be a nice team-building exercise, as the students where each engaged with only one sample (i.e. one Eppendorf tube), and where following the protocol at their own pace, so each had to “find a friend” (to quote Egle exactly!) before they could spin them down. That was one of the best parts!

1 old fashioned mortar & pestle, which was used in turns (but actually the students immediately improvised some other ways to grind too)

1 digital scale, which ended up not working on the spot, and we used about 100x the necessary amount of lichens for each sample… but having in mind our grinding procedure was not optimal, and lichens are tough, this worked out well in the end.

And bunch of consumables, including Eppendorf tubes, pipet tips and glass beads, all generously donated by Dalius :)

Among other improvised “equipment” were also plastic cups, plastic shot glasses (they came very useful for distributing ethanol & isopropanol… For DNA precipitation only!), wooden knifes for “sampling”, plastic bags, which were intended for sampling but ended up being used (very efficiently!) for grinding up the lichens, and paper towels.

We also had:

  • NaCl buffer with SDS for cell lysis (to which we added SDS only at the last minute, so was taking its sweet time to dissolve – some students even took it to the bathroom to run under hot water, and implemented a lot of shaking; in the end the buffer was “soapy” enough for lysis, even though not all of the SDS dissolved);

  • isopropanol for precipitating DNA;

  • ethanol for washing the DNA pellet;

  • TE buffer to dissolve the DNA in.

For lichen DNA extraction we adapted the protocol from here.

The Grinding

After quickly realizing the lichens will be tough to grind even with the glass beads, and to do it with just one mortar will take forever, a number of creative ideas came up: plastic bags that were meant for sampling were repurposed for grinding, and most all students had one with some lichen in no time. Grinding the dry lichens even with glass beads was quite difficult, and before we knew it, a small stone from a flower pot on a windowsill nearby was “equipped” for grinding. After some suffering, we figured out that adding the lysis buffer will not hurt, but might speed up the process of grinding, and it indeed proved to be true. Before long, most students had a bag with some lichen lysate, of very dark and vivid colors: green, brownish and even red (you’d never guess from looking at the actual lichens!). There were still quite a lot of unground bits of lichens floating around too, so we could not use the pipets to transfer it into the Eppendorfs. Thinking quickly on our feet, we carefully poured the liquidy part of our samples directly into the tubes.

The Spinning

Each student was working with one samples, so after they poured their lysate into the Eppendorfs, they each had to find a “friend” who had a sample of similar volume to balance them out, and then moved on to the centrifuging.


[Ground & spun down lichen samples 1, 5, 2 and 4. We took the top phase. Photo by Egle]

The samples were spinned down to get rid of the solid bits of lichens, then 300ul of the clear lysate taken into a fresh tube with a pipet, mixed with 180ul of isopropanol (some students had adjust this & take higher amounts after the first go did not produce any results), and spin it out to get a wonderful (and colorful) DNA pellet !!!

The Pellet !!

We were all over-the-moon when this worked and we got the first pellet, and Egle was taking pictures like crazy:


[DNA pellet!! Samples 1, 5, and 4. Photo by Egle]

Interestingly, the pellets maintained strong original colors, likely because there were quite some proteins and other organic molecules, including pigments, still present in the samples. Even though the DNA that came out was not pristine clean, it was enough for our purpose, and was not that far from the purity achieved in the lab using regular protocols (which was also what we were using).

Most students got DNA pellet in their samples, or tried again with higher starting amounts of lysate if they failed. The pellets were then washed with ethanol and left open to dry out (and the students had quite some fun with “sniffing” the readiness samples regularly).

The Future of the DNA

While the purpose of this “experiment” was to demonstrate how such seemingly “lab-bound” procedures as DNA extraction can be easily carried out with simple tools, which can be accessed at home or via biohacking labs (such as our BioLab in Technarium), some of the most engaged students – Vytautas and Rosita – proposed an idea to take the samples into their school’s lab and carry out PCR of biosynthetic genes, as well as subsequent electrophoresis and DNA isolation, so we can send the samples out for sequencing and start screening the biosynthetic diversity of Lithuanian lichen!

Considering the potential of new natural products that can be used in biomedicine, especially as we approach the age of widespread antibiotic resistance, and new therapies for various cancers and other severe diseases are constantly searched for, it will be very interesting to see whether we can find any unique biosynthetic genes in our samples. The potential for such study is high, since lichens are generally known to be “treasure chests” for biosynthetic diversity, yet it is completely unexplored in Lithuania!

Holding our breath and waiting what our young researchers will discover!

If you would like to do something similar: search for undiscovered natural molecules, identify a potential invasive species in your back yard or if you’re suspicious of your local sellers “goat cheese” actually being goat (or the sushi you had last night actually being fish) – drop us a line!