Can Hobbyists and Hackers Transform Biotechnology?
In his new book Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, Marcus Wohlsen explores the new movement in garage-based biotech.
For most of us, managing our health means visiting a doctor. The more serious our concerns, the more specialized a medical expert we seek. Our bodies often feel like foreign and frightening lands, and we are happy to let someone with an MD serve as our tour guide. For most of us, our own DNA never makes it onto our personal reading list.
Biohackers are on a mission to change all that. These do-it-yourself biology hobbyists want to bring biotechnology out of institutional labs and into our homes. Following in the footsteps of revolutionaries like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who built the first Apple computer in Jobs’s garage, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who invented Google in a friend’s garage, biohackers are attempting bold feats of genetic engineering, drug development, and biotech research in makeshift home laboratories.
In Biopunk, journalist Marcus Wohlsen surveys the rising tide of the biohacker movement, which has been made possible by a convergence of better and cheaper technologies. For a few hundred dollars, anyone can send some spit to a sequencing company and receive a complete DNA scan, and then use free software to analyze the results. Custom-made DNA can be mail-ordered off websites, and affordable biotech gear is available on Craigslist and eBay.
Wohlson discovers that biohackers, like the open-source programmers and software hackers who came before, are united by a profound idealism. They believe in the power of individuals as opposed to corporate interests, in the wisdom of crowds as opposed to the single-mindedness of experts, and in the incentive to do good for the world as opposed to the need to turn a profit. Suspicious of scientific elitism and inspired by the success of open-source computing, the bio DIYers believe that individuals have a fundamental right to biological information, that spreading the tools of biotech to the masses will accelerate the pace of progress, and that the fruits of the biosciences should be delivered into the hands of the people who need them the most.
Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life
By Marcus Wohlsen
With all their ingenuity and idealism, it’s difficult not to root for the biohackers Wohlsen meets. Take MIT grad student Kay Aull, who built her own genetic testing kit in her closet after her father was diagnosed with the hereditary disease hemochromatosis. “Aull’s test does not represent new science but a new way of doing science,” Wohlsen writes. Aull’s self-test for the disease-causing mutation came back positive.
Or take Meredith Patterson, who is trying to create a cheap, decentralized way to test milk for melamine poisoning without relying on government regulators. Patterson has written a “Biopunk Manifesto” that reads in part, “Scientific literacy empowers everyone who possesses it to be active contributors to their own health care, the quality of their food, water and air, their very interactions with their own bodies and the complex world around them.”
Biohackers Josh Perfetto and Tito Jankowski created OpenPCR, a cheap, hackable DNA Xerox machine (PCR stands for “polymerase chain reaction,” the name for a method of replicating DNA). Interested biohackers can pre-order one for just over $500 or, once it’s ready, download the blueprint free and make their own. According to the website, its apps include DNA sequencing and a test to “check that sushi is legit.” Jankowski “hopes to introduce young people to the tools and techniques of biotech in a way that makes gene tweaking as much a part of everyday technology as texting,” Wohlsen writes. Jankowski, together with Joseph Jackson and Eri Gentry, also founded BioCurious, a collaborative lab space for biohackers in the Bay area. “Got an idea for a startup? Join the DIY, ‘garage biology’ movement and found a new breed of biotech,” their website exhorts.
Then there’s Andrew Hessel, a biohacker fed up with the biotech business model, which he believes is built on the hoarding of intellectual property and leads companies to prioritize one-size-fits-all blockbuster drugs. “During the sixty years or so that computers went from a roomful of vacuum tubes to iPhones, the pace of drug development has never quickened,” Hessel tells Wohlsen. Hoping to change that, Hessel is developing the first DIY drug development company, the Pink Army Cooperative, whose goal is to bioengineer custom-made viruses that will battle breast cancer. “Personalized therapies made just for you. In weeks or days, not years. Believe it. It’s time for a revolution,” the company’s website proclaims. “We are trying to be the Linux of cancer,” Hessel explains.
Of course, some of these possibilities are frightening. If biohackers can engineer organisms to cure diseases, surely they can engineer organisms to inflict them. Wohlsen, however, isn’t overly concerned. The technology just isn’t in place for biohackers to bioengineer weapons worth worrying about, he says. Not only is genetic engineering unnecessary to commit acts of bioterror, he writes, but it’s also much more complex than other options available for manufacturing biotoxins. In fact, the FBI has expressed interest in using DIY biohackers as “sentries on biosecurity’s front lines.”
And yet, writes Wohlsen, the biohackers have yet to produce any truly novel results, and he isn’t convinced that they will. “They are not about to cure cancer when an eleven-thousand-employee, $80 billion company like Genentech has so far failed. They are not going to unleash the world’s first artificial amoeba tomorrow or graft wings onto house cats,” he writes. “The real significance of DIY biotechnologists might lie not in any particular technological achievement but in the provocative questions they raise.”
Wohlsen, while sympathetic to the biohackers’ ideals, remains neutral about the merits of their activities. He offers few opinions of his own but raises the questions we need to begin asking: What is the value of expertise relative to the wisdom of crowds? Do intellectual property laws further or slow scientific progress? Should access to information about our own bodies be held as a basic human right? How much regulatory oversight is warranted when it comes to tinkering with life? And, ultimately, should just anyone be able to do science?
Personally, I’d still rather have a physician in charge of my health than tinker with it myself using partial knowledge and makeshift tools. But it’s fun to know that the latter is possible. I won’t hold my breath waiting for someone to cure cancer in his or her garage, but I am glad to know people are out there trying—and it will be profoundly cool if they succeed.