Well, first we'll need some backup on what people are doing in a biology lab these days. There are lots of labs that do all kinds of fascinating research... but now I won't send you off to read endless Wikipedia pages and scientific publications.
I'll try to boil it all down to a simple classification. I'll offer you one here, based more or less on difficulty and/or cost of the experiments. Of course, this is not universal and doesn't pretend to cover every possible biology study in the world! This is to get a newbie to understand more or less what modern biology is about – and what can be chosen as an interesting DIY biology project.
That being said...
Most of biology labs do something -or everything- of the following:
Change DNA? Construct new genes? Make bugs like Escherichia coli produce proteins (and, say, glow in the dark or bind some nasty water pollutant)? Check! This all has to do with molecular biology. The procedures for those things are known and can be carried out in an average DIY bio-lab like BUGSS. In fact, BUGSS has a couple of molecular biology projects running right now!
The equipment needed is minimal: fridges, PCR machines, gel runners... The chemicals and solutions are also known and readily available. Most of the procedures can be done on the lab bench with almost no safety precautions, and the skills needed are minimal (you just watch it done once or twice – and you're ready to go).
*Of course, we're talking safe non-infectious bugs! No Legionella, Salmonella, ella, ella, ella... For those guys you need something called bio-safety lab, where scientists look like astronauts because of the amount of protection they wear.
I'm talking plants not plant cells here (cells are discussed under “Cellular biology”).
Now I'm definitely not a plant scientist so correct me if I miss something... A lot of people try to genetically modify plants to make them develop new features. Corn that has higher protein content? Blue tomatoes? Potatoes that are not eaten by a bug? This all falls into the “Molecular biology” part. You genetically engineer plants – i.e. you change their DNA so that they acquire new traits.
Of course, after you're done fiddling with genes you want to have your plant grown up to check the results – and to prove your Frankenstein potato is viable at all. You may also want to pollinate them to produce seeds. You can do genetic research on plants by cross-pollinating them (as Mendel did). You can study how their growth is affected by different factors (pollution, plant hormones, soil composition etc).
This does not seem to be that difficult, although, again, I do not have experience with plants. I imagine you'll need pots, soil (this can be plain normal or some fancy special soil) and a sort of greenhouse for them to keep warm and be exposed to light. Something like growing a houseplant, maybe. You'll water them and maybe add fertilizer... and that's basically it. Wait until it grows. Analyze its (new) traits. This all can definitely be done at BUGSS.
*Although working with some kinds of plant infections and viruses may require bio-safety labs.
Grow liver cells and test them for glucose tolerance? Try 3D-bioprinting with plant cells to construct a new plant body?
This requires a bit more of mastery – and a little more equipment. Cells have to live in special sterile conditions mimicking their natural habitat (aka organism), with strictly monitored chemical composition, temperature, aeration etc. You'll need a thermostat which, apart from temperature, maintains a strict gas composition. One manipulates cells in a flow hood – a flow chamber which provides minimal contamination from the outer world (otherwise, some fungus or bug will fly in and eat your cells with the media they grow on).
Also, more dedication is needed: cells have to be regularly fed new media, they have to be split (if cell overcrowding occurs they'll usually die) and monitored. Animal cells (and plant also, for that matter – although I have less experience with that) are quite capricious, and will not tolerate things that bugs can generally live with. You're late a few hours or you can't come during the weekend? You lose your cells – and your experiment.
Bottom line. It's nice to have someone to help you out in case you're not able to make it. It's nice to have someone to teach you – and explain why oh why your cells died again. At BUGSS you can find such help – and the equipment needed.
Wanna test mouse metabolism after injection of a drug? Or maybe measure memory loss in aging rats on low-calorie diet?
This falls in the category of animal studies. For that, one has to obtain permissions to work with animals, to comply with existing procedures of humane treatment of animals... buy the animals, certainly... and also, animals usually have to live in special places (called animal facilities) with complex regulations, fed special food, and a person qualified is needed to check them every day... Needless to say, those experiments can be quite expensive and generally only possible in scientific institutions. BUGSS here is no player.
-Structural biology, biophysics
Now we all know that proteins are composed of atoms, and the spacial arrangement of those atoms is the code that governs what is living matter (proteins, DNA etc), what is non-living (like salt or iron) and how these molecules will interact with other molecules.
The field that asks (and sometimes answers) questions like - What is the spacial arrangement of atoms in this protein – that makes it carry out its functions? Which is the structure of this virus that fools our immune system? And o on – is called Structural biology. To be true, it's more physics than biology method-wise. As a rule, you need technology to help you peer into atoms: X-ray diffractometers, NMR magnets, synchrotron facilities...
The price of equipment is high, and its management can be quite costly. E.g., an NMR machine (nuclear magnetic resonance, one of the most popular methods to determine structure of molecules) needs a continuous supply of liquid helium. Can you get liquid helium on a daily basis? Me neither.
Also, all this complex equipment has to be manipulated by a professional. One can't typically learn to do it in a couple of days – scientists do months'-long courses to know all the details of the hardware, the software, the safety measures...
Needless to say, this is definitely not something one can do in a DIY bio-lab.
*One can however work with data already acquired by someone else that is in the public domain – and most scientific results are kept in special databases freely accessible on the web. You can download data about the spacial arrangement of atoms in a protein of interest and do your own research on it – like, compare it to other proteins, model dynamic behavior of its atoms etc. This is part of the thriving field of Bioinformatics – working with biological data on a computer. BUGSS has hosted talks by bioinformaticians in the past and may well invite them again in the future – so check it out. Also, you can teach yourself bioinformatics – and if you're a computer programmer, it may be not that difficult.
Also, there are great places on the web with technical advice. Yes, there's no secret scientific knowledge – you're free to see all the recipes (scientists call them protocols to sound more solid and important) that scientists use to cook up their great results!
Start your own projects – or come see how other people do it!
Here at BUGSS you'll have everything you need: chemicals, lab safety (you don't want some fungus come and eat up all your week's work) – and advice and inspiration!
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