Biopunk: Hack Your DNA
    By Hank Campbell | March 28th 2011 03:24 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Is biology too important to be left in the hands of experts?   Maybe.

    Americans like stories about underdogs who start as outsiders but then become the very core of what being 'inside' means.    Think Einstein and the patent office.  Or Mendel, an 'uncertified substitute teacher' whose day job was being an Augustian monk but whose knowledge of amateur horticulture allowed him to win a race career biologists did not even know had started.

    Outsiders doing important things appeals to the frontier spirit in Americans and there's nothing more like a wide open frontier than biology in the hands of hackers - biopunks.

    Biopunks believe biology is not only being hampered creatively by being limited to large, well-funded labs, it is downright dangerous.  They want to democratize biology the way, they say, the Internet democratized software.    Certainly some of the security we enjoy today is because of hackers, people who tested limits and tried to break things to see what happens.

    The parallels in computers and biology are there.  In the cultural lexicon your PC gets 'infected' with a 'virus' but can anyone really claim the Internet succeeded because of free stuff or hackers?  No, the Internet succeeded because Cisco and Sun Microsystems found a way to make money making it possible for other companies to get the mass population to do free stuff.  It did take hackers to force large companies to optimize their technology and make it more secure but it's hard to see hackers as performing some sort of civic duty trying to steal your credit card.

    That's the philosophical issue and fine to debate.  Dead people are not so easy to debate philosophically and people who are concerned about the pitfalls of pathogens in the hands of everyone, including the evil and the stupid, are more conservative.   Neither career biologists nor the government believe making it easy for amateur biologists to get access to smallpox will lead to a better world.

    Regardless of where you are on that spectrum right now, it's a fascinating sub-culture in science and Marcus Wohlsen dives into it nicely with Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, arriving in bookstores April 14th.   If you buy it from that link we get a penny or something.

    The term 'punk' gets thrown around a lot these days, and it's supposed to be edgy and cool but it's been used to such an extent it is almost meaningless because it is so common.  That's okay, at least it gives you an idea where they are coming from.  While career biologists are overwhelmingly progressives, biopunks are libertarian outsiders, they trust big government and big science not one bit.     They say they want to take biology back to its purest form, man unlocking the secrets of nature, and they don't need big budgets or labs, they just need to be able to get information without the FBI arresting them.

    Well, is is possible?  I certainly admire amateur biology, the same way I admire people who do protein folding in Foldit or the companies in India who can make a microscope out of bamboo for $4 and give them to students.   But is biology in a sink really going to be better, or just cheaper?

    The people Wohlsen interviews in the book can be a little creepy in their zealotry (they have complete distrust of scientists and government yet do not really think 'black hat' hackers in biology could be a danger) but they may have a point about being able to do some things big biology cannot, because the projects not big enough.  

    And they are certainly true believers in science literacy, which resonates with the Science 2.0 community, and recognize the distinction between that and science education.   Scientifically educated people read Scientific American but scientifically literate people read and write here.    I resisted the urge to call science for the new millenium SciencePunk, though.    Science 2.0 will have to do.

    Literacy leads to liberation, they believe, and they're right.   A literate culture that can better understand health, medicine and the environment is better for everyone.  The people Wohlsen interviewed do not want to kill cities or make Islands of Dr. Moreau, they want to make lab equipment cheaper, and open source, and promote experimentation.   All terrific goals.

    But still there is that slight feeling of dread when thinking about the biopunks who are not in the book; the dangerous ones bound to crop up.   Evolution is a blessing and a curse; while a virus took millions of years to evolve, hackers don't need millions of years to change it and cause a lot of damage because they have the blueprint.   Biopunks are unfailingly modest and insist damage just isn't possible, but they are also not the malicious types.   The 1980s had few hackers in computers, after all.  It was the descendants of well-meaning programmers who caused the problems.   As we progress into the 21st century and unlock more secrets of nature, biologists, amateur and professional, need to expect they will be like nuclear workers in the 1950s and that means more security, not less.

    And, really, the painful question that has to be asked no matter how much you like their spirit is, can a lot of people doing science poorly yield good science?   Does innovation always occur just because you have more people?   I know the stuff about monkeys creating Shakespeare but monkeys aren't going to kill 15% of the world if they make mistakes.   

    And as much as they want to be outsider-ish, I had a hard time seeing it.    They rely on PCs and the Internet, all run by big companies making money.   Gene splicing was invented at a university.   So was PCR.  And the Human Genome Project, which made a lot of what biopunks want to do possible, was the ultimate Big Science project.   They recognize they will not solve the mysteries of why cancer happens or anything like that but they say they can 'domesticate' biology and, in their way, bring the costs down so that for simpler things, like a person who wants to test something before the FDA can get around do it.  It's a noble goal.

    There have been no homeruns hit by bio-hackers the way independent people hit homeruns in computers and software, but that's okay, it is a young movement, and biopunks get a goofy joy out of doing biology.   I got a goofy joy out of reading Wohlsen's book and I got something to show for it; I got a little smarter reading it and perhaps you will also.


    Just as a curiosity, and because biopunk feels like a new thing but is arguably quite old (Shelley's "Frankenstein", perhaps the golem before that), does anyone know what the first biopunk story would be if not "Frankenstein"?
    "the painful question that has to be asked no matter how much you like their spirit is, can a lot of people doing science poorly yield good science?"
    The more there are, the more (blind) alleys are getting explored, the more also quite capable people will be drawn in. Quite fast it won't be so poor anymore. Important: Some science is not done otherwise! I welcome citizen science. They have done a whole lot of good lately as chem hacks. Now the "bio-punk" movement takes off and they too will care about the war on drugs. Only bio-punks are willing to work on important projects like making ADHD medication affordable. Only bio-punks will have the methods to make an impact.
    I like to share your enthusiasm, though I think you are not factoring in the risks of biology as significantly as are warranted.  Physics has any number of laypeople participating - have there been any substantial finds due to kitchen table participation?
    Oh there are huge risks, what makes you think I am not aware of them? The more important then to propose good projects.
    Physics obviously does not offer itself to evolutionary influences like information technology or biology (evolutionary algorithms, mostly in applied physics, just about take off, but will stay at the fringe for a long while to come). Physics has no genes (DNA/program code/memes) that can be easily shared and improved upon by sheer trial and error. The physical cosmos is no changing environment where the gravity theory would need to run after matching a moving target. In physics, large numbers mainly produce more junk. Biology however lives from junk linking up with junk being selected by other junk. Thats what we all are; we are heaps of junk. That is what the internet (and brain) is: An amazing amount of nonsense under co-evolved selection mechanisms. Most of the "good stuff" on the internet derives from garbage put together in new ways inspired by haphazard juxtaposition. Without the large amount of crap, there would be much less interesting information.
    I'm fond of what the word 'punk' often brings to a room, or a conversation--from Sid Vicious to Julian Assange to Akira--but it's too early to give BioPunks the front page of the Times. the difference between gene splicing and identity theft (virtuality vs. reality? arguable, I admit) is a big one; it's best that governing agencies and bioethics give biopunks a healthy dose of tough love before granting them a green card to biological paradise. noble intentions can be found in every group (big and small), but as you've pointed out, the potential risks are far too great for science to 'take biology back to its purest form.' at least for now. thanks for the informative piece! C
    "We are an impossibility in an impossible universe." -Ray Bradbury
    One fun graphic I came across while looking for ways to put steampunk, cyberpunk, biopunk, etc. all in some common cultural framework of their day (I failed) brought me across this nifty graphic:  WWI as it would have been fought between Steampunks and Biopunks of the era.    I figure this article is going nowhere despite the great book and topic so we might as well have some fun with it.

    With alliance names like Clanker and Darwinist I would be torn on who to choose!   If you click on the image to make it larger size you can see the Danish army huddled up in the corner while the Dutch girl is getting drunk or whatever girls in Netherlands do.  The art is magnificent but the concept is also cool.   Just hard to see in 600 pixels.

    And a neat video:

    It hasn't warmed up yet, is all, Hank
    I'd already posted my punk contribution here, so won't duplicate

    sweeeet graphic (!!) and damn, embedding yt in comments, I like it. I disagree re article going nowhere.. just hasn't caught on yet. well I guess we'll see, for better or worse. will def check these out.
    "We are an impossibility in an impossible universe." -Ray Bradbury
    Just when I get convinced I can sneeze on the screen and get 20,000 readers, I read a whole book and slave over an article on the topic and it goes nowhere.  

    When the Internet hands you a gift, it also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended for self-flagellation solely - with apologies to Truman Capote.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Dead people are not so easy to debate philosophically
    Sure they are. You always win.

    Since I haven't read the book yet, I'm not sure what democratizing biology means. Is it along the lines of people notifying experts when they see birds in their backyards, or amateur astrologists, etc? I'm all for bringing biology to the masses and getting them interested, but I don't think having them actually do biology (or whatever you want to call it) is such a great idea. There are protocols and regulations and nuances and more that in a certain sense allow biology to move forward, and I don't know how a person with a self-made incubator working on a cure for Ebola in his suburban basement will further science. I'm not disregarding it, I'm just not sure how it would work.

    Maybe people are busy today and haven't had a chance to sign on and read the article. I thought it was a really interesting topic, so don't self-flagellate. Unless you want to, of course.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    If you do decide to self-flagellate is there any chance you can get someone to video that and post it here as well? I'm sure that a video of you self-flagellating would bring a lot more readers to this article!
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at
    As I always say, women can make anything into innuendo!
    Becky Jungbauer
    I'm pretty sure Helen and I weren't trying to be subtle. :)
    ok I couldn't resist. again, supercool graphics in the vid. seems the 'steamboy' motif is catching on (or coming back?).. 'sucker punch' looks to have a similar feel. still, the book's (usually) a better souvenir.
    "We are an impossibility in an impossible universe." -Ray Bradbury