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Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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.Â 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.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
A chronicle of DIY biotech scientists and their idealistic quest to democratize DNA like the Internet did information.
The most revolutionary discoveries in science and technology often emerge from out-of-the-way places, forged by brilliant outsiders with few resources besides boundless energy and great ideas. That describes the biohacking movement now in its early, heady days. In the next few years, companies will start selling libraries of genetic LEGOs that amateur scientists will use to build new life from scratch. Self- trained genetic tinkerers are already unlocking the potential of DNA in kitchens and garage labs all over the country.
Marcus Wohlsen introduces us to some of these fascinating biopunks, including:
members of a San Francisco biohacker collective who are tinkering with strawberry genes
citizen scientists in London who are working to set up a storefront wet lab
a do-it-yourself biology meet-up in a Brooklyn apartment that celebrated Earth Day by inserting squid genes into E. coli
Of course, amid these stories of innovative tinkering lies the possibility of genetic engineering experiments gone awry. Wohlsen follows the biopunk underground toward a future that might leave us feeling blessed, doomed, or both.
About the Author
"In the same way that hackers in the 1970s launched the computer revolution, a new generation of do-it-yourselfers are acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to hack life itself. Biopunk is an enthralling account of the most important technological story of our generation."
-Mark Frauenfelder, editor in chief of Make and author of Made By Hand
"Marcus Wohlsen's fast-paced tour of home-brew DNA dicers and splicers lights up a world of edgy, young Prometheans whose dreams are as breathtaking as they are controversial. Read Biopunk to find out what these tattooed, wet-lab hackers are stirring up in their kitchens and garages, what inspires their often outlandish visions, and how their campaign to bring biotech's godlike power to the masses may ultimately reshape both our lives and the life forms around us."
-David Stipp, author of The Youth Pill
"We're going to look back on the emergence of DIY biology like we look back on the emergence of personal computers in the late 1970s. Biopunk is a vivid, real-time snapshot of the people and projects that will drive the next explosion of innovation in genetics, food, and health."
-John Wilbanks, vice president for Science at Creative Commons
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