Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How to Create New Life Forms in Your Kitchen

Genetic engineering experiments generally take place in huge corporate, university or government labs manned by white-lab-coated folks with advanced degrees and bulging pre-frontal cortexes. Normal people like you and I can't understand what's going on in there and should keep our distance. I mean, somebody who doesn't know what he's doing could unleash a virus that turned us all into zombies or something, right?

Well, maybe not. A new movement of biotech hobbyists, called biopunks, demands that the tools, materials and knowledge associated with genetic engineering be made "open source." That is, genetic knowledge and the design of instruments used for genetic manipulation should be publicly available and free. Biopunks think that the dangers of hobbyists tinkering with genetic material are highly overstated and the potential benefits to science are innumerable.

In his book Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, Marcus Wohlsen introduces readers to this movement, describing weekend scientists many of whom are already messing about, inventing and developing new biotech processes in their kitchens or hacked-together labs. They're discovering new ways to battle cancer, building new tools for diagnosing disease, and finding new and cheaper ways of processing genetic material. Many of them are autodidacts lacking advanced degrees. According to Wohlsen, they will change the face of biotech.

Wohlsen makes much of the similarities between the biopunk movement and the open source computing movement. For years volunteers have been creating and improving operating systems, browsers, media players and other software and making their products available as free downloads. Biopunks want to do the same with genetic engineering processes. By allowing anyone to experiment with genes, new and innovative ideas will emerge, they say, ideas that could save the lives of cancer patients, bring new diagnosis tools and treatments to suffering third world nations, and bring down the cost of drugs and healthcare. Furthermore, by bringing genetics to the public, more and more young people will be encouraged to enter the field of biotech. One Biopunk demonstration leads kids through the process of isolating DNA from a strawberry, by the end of the lab, they can pick up the stringy stuff of life on the end of a chopstick.

After all, Wohlsen reasons, this is how science used to be done. Regular folks have been genetically engineering life forms through breeding for tens of thousands of years. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetic science, was an academic reject and didn't have a university or a corporation to back him. He made his discoveries by messing around in his garden. Wohlsen may go too far by claiming the double-helix-discovering team of Watson and Crick were really just hackers working within the system, but his point is well taken. Science is, at its heart, experiment and observation. Anyone can do it.

Wohlsen addresses the fears of taking genetic engineering open source as well. Couldn't someone evil make a weapon? Couldn't someone careless cause an environmental disaster? While the DIYers he talks to continually emphasize safety in their labs, they believe that the press has overstated the potential danger of their experiments and of making knowledge open. Far more dangerous than home labs, they say, are government labs which already have potential biological weapons like Anthrax stockpiled and whose security is often lax. Furthermore, genetic engineering is about the most difficult way to go about making a weapon, even a biological one. Traditional toxins and much more effective and easier to make (an observation that's not exactly comforting).

Biopunk won't teach you genetic engineering. It won't let you grow a tail, and won't start you toward a cure for cancer. It stays pretty distant from scientific details, making it easy, entertaining reading. What Biopunk might do is encourage you to take up hacking in some form, to learn about the world not just from books, but by messing around in it.

FCC disclaimer: A time-limited ebook galley was provided by the publisher for this review.


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