DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
By Marcus Wohlsen
Current; 256pp; $25.95
I first dabbled with genetic engineering two years ago in my apartment. A dozen strangers I'd met online hovered around a cherry dining room table while molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen and I coaxed a new set of genetic instructions into a vial of bacteria. The new code, originally from jellyfish, successfully programmed the bacteria to glow green. It was a meager introduction to biotechnology. Afterwards, we ate pizza.
Still, Associated Press science writer Marcus Wohlsen would call me a "biopunk." And his book by the same title introduces the grass-roots movement of biotech enthusiasts who are moving genetics beyond traditional labs—and into kitchens, garages, and workshops. For the uninitiated, that probably sounds incredibly dorky or incredibly creepy. Wohlsen weighs both hypotheses and arrives at a third: Biopunks, he argues, are on the edge of a technological revolution comparable only to the one started by the shaggy übergeeks who built the first personal computers.
Like programming nerds, biohackers may have some social quirks, but their gatherings also share the same potential for creative disruption. These hackers, Wohlsen explains, come to biology for a multitude of reasons: some for the pleasure of learning, others for the power of bending life to their whim. The movement has also produced a burgeoning class of entrepreneurs who see the kernels of billion-dollar ideas coming out of their biotech playtime. While the first biohacker tycoons have yet to emerge, Wohlsen believes they may well be on their way.
He's not the only one. Tom Knight, a tech-guru-cum-biotech-patron, tells Wohlsen that the Biotech Age will do to the physical world what the Information Age has done to data. His thesis is rooted in the cell, which he considers the most perfect manufacturing platform ever made. "I think there's a good chance we can transition from a world where manufacturing is capital-intensive to one where the cost of manufacturing is on the same par with the cost of replicating information," Knight says. In other words, the majority of manufacturing capital won't be spent on raw materials and machinery—rapidly reproducing cells can take care of that. In a sense, the cells will behave both as the factory and the product.
Knight's idea sounds kind of crazy, but it's already taking shape. Scientists are now trying to produce raw materials from genetically modified (GM) organisms. Dozens of biotech companies are also scrambling to replace fossil fuels with GM crops and algae. Chemical companies are teaming with enzyme designers to grow plastics straight from bacteria. And in academic labs, there are early signs that bacterial cells may soon be self-assembling into useful objects. Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Angela Belcher, for example, grows batteries and solar panels using GM viruses. As the technology improves, there's a very good chance we'll be able to mold these cells into things we've never even fathomed.
The secret behind manipulating cells into building what we want, however, lies in our ability to sequence and synthesize DNA. And the problem, as Stanford University professor Drew Endy tells Wohlsen, is that right now "we suck at engineering biology." And this is where the biopunks come in. The Gateses and Jobses of biotech will emerge only when we throw as many eyes and hands at the problem as possible. Wohlsen profiles the young people who aren't just pushing the bounds of DNA programming, they're also making bioengineering cheaper and more accessible. Two of them, Joseph Jackson and Guido Núñez-Mujica, he writes, are prototyping the LavaAmp, a machine that copies DNA—and is the size of a cell phone. The LavaAmp plugs into a computer and is intended to retail for $100. Wohlsen describes how another punk, Tito Jankowski, broadcast open-source blueprints for lab equipment online. The young man with the minuscule budget already has enough to revolutionize an industry that until now was too expensive.
Although Biopunk will surely introduce this class of bio grease monkeys to a new segment of society, the book suffers from one serious flaw: Wohlsen, who compiled his research from 2008 to 2010, may have chronicled his subject a bit too soon. Two years on, the community has matured. Two main players in the book, for example, including Wohlsen's most magnetic character—a leather-wearing, gun-toting goth girl named Meredith Patterson—have since faded away from the movement. Meanwhile, other punks have banded together to form communities around shared equipment and projects. The group that met in my home two years ago formed a lab called Genspace in a New York City warehouse. Since then, Los Angeles and San Francisco labs have followed suit and attracted a growing number of would-be bioengineers. The difference is that many now feel less like "punks" than investors in the biotech future.