I've wanted a gel electrophoresis chamber for a while. I've held back because they cost like $300 and I don't want to spend that much on a tool that won't get used all that often. So, with a bit of my new years eve 2014, I decided to make my own.


I had all the supplies I needed:

  • 1 iPhone 5C case.
  • 1 piece of crumpled tin foil
  • 1 blackberry.
  • 1 bottle of Malbec
  • a few hours of free time.

I used my girlfriend's iPhone 5C case as the chamber.

Chamber construction from iPhone case

I used the top of the case to build a comb. (Note: Cutting Apple plastic is quite difficult. Yet another prop to Apple on their packaging. Not only is their packaging elegant and precise, it is structurally integrous).

Making the comb

I used baking soda and distilled H2O for my buffer. Two grams of baking soda was added to 200ml of distilled water.

I had agar around for making petri dishes so I added 1 gram of agar to 100ml of my buffer. (Possible problem #1: Since I used nutrient agar, the nutrients in the agar may have interfered with the movement of the compounds within the samples used.)


The instructions for building a gel electrophoresis chamber that I followed said to heat the agar solution in the microwave. However, I didn't care to follow the directions to stop the microwave every 10-15 seconds to stir the solution.

Agar overflow in microwave

I'm very satisfied with the decision I made.

I poured the hot agar/buffer solution into my electroded (ie. Aluminium foil wrapped on each side of the iphone case) electrophoresis chamber. I plopped my comb into the chamber and let it sit for 30 minutes.

Electrophoresis chamber with liquid agar solution

After 30 minutes, I pulled out the comb, and I let the chamber sit for an hour while I went to dinner. Yatenga, right around the corner from my apartment. Steak was okay, to much fat for my taste. But the grilled veggies were fantastic! Just the right amount of soft texture and flavor.

When I got back, I filled the wells with anything I found interesting. Well 1 was filled with soap, Well 2 with Malbec, Well 3 with fruit juice, and Well 4 with the juice from a blackberry I squished. (Problem #2: These samples were probably not the best to use for seeing results of gel electrophoresis with the naked eye.)

Revo lution Malbec

Electrophoresis chamber with liquid sample weight boats

(Possible problem #3: I didn't let the buffer go into the well first. Maybe that lack of buffer in between the sample and the gel significantly cuts down on the conduction between the two.)

I took a measurement of the resistance across (length-wise) the chamber and agar. I measured 8 kohms of resistance across 10cm of agar. Then I poured in 25 ml of buffer to submerge the gel.

After I added the buffer, I got some weird numbers for the resistance across the chamber. The resistance started out at about 160 kohms and kept climbing. Now that I am thinking about it, those numbers make some sense. The buffer may have been corroding the multi-meter probes and this corrosion caused them to build up a layer of tarnish that kept them from conducting. Or maybe the bubbles from the corrosion were preventing good conduction between the probes and the buffer.

Then I hooked up an alligator clip to each electrode and took a final measurement of resistance. I measured 15.05 kohms across the alligator clips and chamber; much better (or at least consistent) number!

Electrophoresis chamber ready for run

A voltage of 12 VDC was applied on either end of the chamber. (Problem #4: This amount of voltage is nowhere near the amount that I would have liked to apply. 100 VDC would have been my choice but I didn't have the supplies to apply that amount of voltage safely)

To kill time until the ball dropped, we started to watch the movie Melancolia. Gorgeous visuals, but a friend I was with wasn't into the movie so we bailed on it and started Frequencies (Netflix baby).

Side thought after watching Frequencies:

If a machine can discover that it can control itself, does that make it any less a machine? If a machine discovers that it can control itself, does its act of making a choice (whether to do so and control itself or not to) make it any less a machine? What is a decision and is it the defining characteristic of consciousness? Maybe.


After the movie, it looked like there was very little movement.

Electrophoresis chamber after 2 hours and 35 minutes

From the picture above, it appears that the blackberry squish moved the farthest, having moved about 1cm towards the cathode. Of course, there is the likely possibility that the compounds in the other samples traveled farther but were not visible. Many compounds required a stain to be seen with the naked eye. Since I didn't have any stains or UV lights to check that possibility, blackberry squish won this race by 1cm.

If you look closely at t.. figure above, you can see that the gel was beginning to pull away from the cathode.

Just to see what would happen (ie. the motivation for this entire project), I let the gel run overnight. Nine hours later the gel looked quite different.

Electrophoresis chamber after 13 hours

The samples were hardly visible. I attribute this lack of visibility to diffusion of the samples into the buffer more than anything else. What was most impressive was the severe corrosion of the Aluminium foil and the pulling away of the gel from the cathode. I assume that the pulling away of the gel from the cathode was due to the bubbling from the reaction of the Aluminum foil with the buffer under a potential gradient.

Aluminum foil corrosion

Gel pulling away from electrode

Before I threw away the gel, I decided to look at the areas around the wells a bit more closely. I chopped up a few pieces of the gel and put them under the microscope. Here are the results.

Control - squished agar.

Piece of blackberry?

Broken plates of agar

Corroded Aluminum foil / An upside down seahorse playing a recorder


I had a lot of fun and ended up watching the rest of Melancolia the next day!

Sciencey Conclusion

The gel electrophoresis chamber did appear to work although how well it worked will never be known. Only naked eye observations of sample movement were made; no staining was done to check for bands of compounds with different molecular weights and shapes.