Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life. Marcus Wohlsen. Current.

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life Book Cover Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
Marcus Wohlsen
April 14, 2011

The most disruptive force on the planet resides in DNA. 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 an earlier generation of computer hackers 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.

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 genetically modified innovation by making the tools of biotechnology accessible to everyone. Borrowing their idealism from the worlds of open-source software, artisanal food, Internet startups and the Peace Corps, biopunks are 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 meet a new breed of hackers who aren’t afraid to get their hands with, 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 biomarkers 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 significant 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 the laptop might come sooner than we think.

Marcus Wohlsen is a San Francisco-based reporter for the Associated Press, where he has covered biotech, DIY science, illegal drugs, crime, and the environment. He is a graduate of Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. This is his first book.