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Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life

by Marcus Wohlsen

Bill Gates recently told Wired that if he were a teenager today, he would be hacking biology. "If you want to change the world in some big way," he says, "that's where you should start-biological molecules."

The most disruptive force on the planet resides in DNA. Biotech companies and academic researchers are just beginning to unlock the potential of piecing


Bill Gates recently told Wired that if he were a teenager today, he would be hacking biology. "If you want to change the world in some big way," he says, "that's where you should start-biological molecules."

The most disruptive force on the planet resides in DNA. Biotech companies and academic researchers are just beginning to unlock the potential of piecing together life from scratch. Champions of synthetic biology believe that turning genetic code into Lego-like blocks to build never-before-seen organisms could solve the thorniest challenges in medicine, energy, and environmental protection. But as the hackers who cracked open the potential of the personal computer and the Internet proved, the most revolutionary discoveries often emerge from out-of-the-way places, forged by brilliant outsiders with few resources besides boundless energy and great ideas.

In Biopunk, Marcus Wohlsen chronicles a growing community of DIY scientists working outside the walls of corporations and universities who are committed to democratizing DNA the way the Internet did information. The "biohacking" movement, now in its early, heady days, aims to unleash an outbreak of genetically modified innovation by making the tools and techniques of biotechnology accessible to everyone. Borrowing their idealism from the worlds of open-source software, artisinal food, Internet startups, and the Peace Corps, biopunks are devoted advocates for open-sourcing the basic code of life. They believe in the power of individuals with access to DNA to solve the world's biggest problems.

You'll meet a new breed of hackers who aren't afraid to get their hands wet, from entrepreneurs who aim to bring DNA-based medical tools to the poorest of the poor to a curious tinkerer who believes a tub of yogurt and a jellyfish gene could protect the world's food supply. These biohackers include:

-A duo who started a cancer drug company in their kitchen
-A team who built an open-source DNA copy machine
-A woman who developed a genetic test in her apartment for a deadly disease that had stricken her family

Along with the potential of citizen science to bring about disruptive change, Wohlsen explores the risks of DIY bioterrorism, the possibility of genetic engineering experiments gone awry, and whether the ability to design life from scratch on a laptop might come sooner than we think.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Biopunks, as defined by AP science and technology reporter Wohlsen, are part of a loosely knit, multifaceted movement to find ways to permit people to engage in DNA research without the restrictions and costs imposed by the scientific and medical establishment.Practitioners, some self-taught, set up shop in their kitchens or garages, believing that significant biological advances are more likely to occur as more people get involved in the enterprise. For the most part opposed to intellectual property rights, they prefer the open-source model used to design some computer software. Although biopunks have not yet made any significant scientific advances, they view themselves as "simplifying and domesticating" biology. Though his prose is a bit dry, Wohlsen introduces some fascinating, altruistic individuals, people who would like to fight disease without profit as their primary motive. While Wohlsen conveys, and seems to share, their excitement, he provides little critical commentary on their prospects for success. He also splits his attention between true DIYers and others who are working outside the scientific establishment because they haven't been able to find jobs or funding. Similarly, modest sections on bioterrorism and potentially dangerous experiments in genetic engineering seem largely unconnected to his main focus. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews

Do-it-yourself comes to biotechnology in the form of young geeks who tinker with DNA in the garage, the kitchen or wherever they can set up a lab bench.

According to AP reporter Wohlsen, these DIY scientists are passionate biology graduates or post-docs, savvy in the ways of molecular biology and computers and possessed of a libertarian streak. They want open access to information and oppose the kind of data control and patent rights they see embodied by academics, biotech firms or government bureaucrats. In this debut, the author profiles leading "biopunks" who believe that free access to crowd-sourced information is the key to rapid innovation. Their idea of a "hack" is not the breaking and entering of a computer system for illicit purposes, but a term that means they have gotten tools and materials on the cheap and used them to develop diagnostic tests, drugs or even new organisms. Indeed they have: Wohlsen describes a cheap PCR machine (for replicating bits of DNA), a woman who devised a test for a genetic disease that runs in her family and some ingenious designs for cancer-targeting drugs. Some biopunks have formed groups like DIYbio, which makes biology accessible to citizen scientists; others are futurist "transhumanists" who dream of extending life spans and importing computer chips in their brains. If this information makes you anxious or worried about socio/legal/ethical issues, lack of regulation, privacy concerns or DIYers creating Frankensteins, Wohlsen's discussions of these issues will hardly reassure. On the one hand, the FBI wrongly cracked down on one legit scientist (and now appears to be promoting friendly information exchanges). On the other, the suggestion that it's cheaper to make your own weaponized anthrax or ricin, rather than a brand new microbe, is no comfort.

Though there are not yet any solutions to the legal and ethical issues, Wolhsen provides a timely airing of what may be going on in a backyard near you.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.02(w) x 6.32(h) x 0.98(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Marcus Wohlsen is a science writer for the Associated Press. He covers the impact of biotechnology on society with a focus on genetic testing, personalized medicine, synthetic biology, and bioethics. His articles are published worldwide and have appeared in every major newspaper, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian.

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