April 14, 2011
A Boston Biotech Watch Book Review
By Steve Dickman, CEO, CBT Advisors
Marcus Wohlsen’s ahead-of-the-curve new book Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, brings us a radical idea: garage biologists are busily “hacking” their own genomes, cooking up a variety of novel and potentially useful wetware inventions. Some of these may look like Rube Goldberg contraptions right now, but they might change the world profoundly, much as mainstream biotechnology already has. Even (especially?) for those of us who live and breathe biotech in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this idea is fresh, even startling.
Biopunk chronicles, for one, a young MIT-trained “DIY scientist” who created and ran a DNA test on herself in her Cambridge kitchen for less than $200. The test would cost thousands if ordered from a clinical lab. She used countertop gear to look for – and find – evidence that she had a predisposition for a hereditary and severe disease.
In another chapter, a research team in an undisclosed location crowdsources funds on the Internet to create “the world’s smallest version of the thermal cycler,” an all-important DNA analysis tool that would “wedge open the door … to peer-to-peer biotech.” Combined with “an as-yet hypothetical DNA reading chip” and some samples of pathogen DNA, the team’s invention could give a doctor or nurse working in the field in a developing country “an answer in minutes” about which pathogen had infected a patient.
And more: industrial-strength “DNA photocopiers” known as PCR machines encased not in sheet metal but in wood; an edgy conference called “Outlaw Biology?”; and a pony-tailed bioinformaticist who tinkers after hours in his Mountain View garage with a device that could read DNA electronically, a device that he would give away or sell at cost to developing-world health initiatives or to other biohackers. If it works, it could eventually undermine or augment traditional diagnostic assays based on technologies like ELISA and microarrays.
It is for the developing world, with its cost constraints, lack of up-to-date technology and urgent needs, for which biohacking would seem to hold the greatest promise, as long as it can overcome some daunting obstacles. But for would-be startup founders who need a shortcut to intellectual property, DIY would seem to offer an attractive “quick-and-dirty” alternative. No less a luminary than Freeman Dyson is a full-on advocate for DIY biology. In a 2007 essay entitled “Our Biotech Future” published in the New York Review of Books, he said “I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.”
Wohlsen, a Bay Area-based science reporter for the Associated Press, plucked the book’s core concept from a brief story he had published. Unfortunately, the moment he has chosen to expand it into a book feels a bit too early. Invisible on Google Trends, “Biopunk” has been mentioned only in a few magazine articles (for example in the New Yorker and Wired), mostly in the context of the promise and threat of mass-producing DNA via “synthetic biology.”
But Wohlsen’s timing does society a favor. Although his choice of topic may not help his book ring the gong of popular science as did, say, James Gleick’s Chaos in the 1980s or Dava Sobel’s Longitude in the 1990s, he has nonetheless caught and illuminated biohacking while it is still a tiny subculture and yet potentially could grow into a powerful force. Could it become a bigger one? Could it – pardon the expression – go viral, with astonishing results? Or will it be tamed and shackled, reduced to a harmless hobby like coin collecting or trainspotting?
Wohlsen is a fine writer with an ear for the absurd. Biopunk is well written, well-organized and has a satisfying amount of fresh material, answering the insistent question “Who ARE these people?” in a way that brings the individuals satisfyingly to life.
But as enjoyable as the book is, it does not describe a “what is” as much as it gives us a glimpse of a “what might be.” Like personal computing before Steve Jobs and the Homebrew Computing Club, DIY DNA is missing both a galvanizing new technology (the personal computer, the internet) and a recognized leader.
What’s more, no matter how good it is, a non-fiction book cannot yet capture the world that may yet be created by DNA “hackers.” There are three reasons for this:
- Reason One: DIYers haven’t created enough of it yet. There is no brilliant hack even of the 1988 variety nearly pulled off by Marcus Hess, the KGB Hacker, when he penetrated the network at Lawrence Berkeley Labs and started looking for nuclear secrets (a story I covered for Nature that was later told compellingly by Clifford Stoll in his 1989 book The Cuckoo’s Egg), let alone a hack as subtle and diabolical as that described here (Social Media Tools Used to Target Corporate Secrets: USA Today, March 31, 2011) or even the successful takedown of tens of millions of credit cards by this guy (Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground by Kevin Poulsen, Crown 2011).
- Reason Two: The possibilities are so massive no one can think of them yet. One could argue that financial or intellectual limitations will prevent the hacking of anything more complex than a bacterium. But that would be so wrong. Wohlsen shows convincingly that the technology of DNA manipulation is available, affordable and already being applied. So what if the “tinkerers,” as they proudly call themselves, have not yet tinkered their way to a gryphon or some other creature we have not even thought of yet? This technology – cloning, sequencing, DNA manipulation and now synthesis – is extremely powerful. Think about that power – to create and fuse entire genomes. Now consider the tools of the moment – of Facebook, Twitter, the internet itself — all tools that foster “distributed intelligence” and group problem-solving. Combine cheap tools to manipulate DNA with the power of networks and you’d better stand back because what happens might rival the power of the nuclear bomb, a comparison Wohlsen aptly draws.
- Reason Three: Before they can create much, the government will stop them. This, it seems to me, is the biggest threat that faces the nascent and promising movement of DNA hacking. As Germans from both East and West Germany used to say just after reunification, the “wall in the head” is much more formidable and hard to dismantle than the actual Berlin Wall was. According to Wohlsen, the troubling arrest and successful prosecution of one apparently non-malicious DNA hacker has already shown that it can chill the field. More systematic government intervention has the potential to freeze it.
If government intervention – through regulation, post-9/11 bioterror laws or “just” by intimidation – were to shut down DNA hacking, this would be both sad and ironic. Sad because it would cut off a potentially limitless source of new discoveries that could benefit humankind. Ironic because forcing DNA hackers back into “societally approved” (read expensive, cumbersome, peer-reviewed) channels or driving them underground would be a denial of the bottom-up, can-do pioneering spirit that is part of the cultural heritage of the United States.
The not so subtle message of Wohlsen’s book is that the very nature of the hacker community – low-budget, decentralized and interested in the pursuit of novel applications for DNA for their own sake – makes it a threat both to public safety as well as to corporate profits.
For the moment, we hasten to add, the threat seems more imagined than real. As Wohlsen puts it, “…bad guys with a semester of community college biology under their belts can get far more destruction for their dollar by whipping up a vat of botulism-causing bacteria in their basements than by trying to splice genes.”
Government meddling may be enough to slow the pace of biohacking. But I hope that does not stop it. Just as free-flowing, non-establishment creativity has helped give us Linux, SETI and the remarkable political power of Twitter and other social networks, DNA hacking may turn out to be a potent source for good.
This will only happen before a couple of those obstacles are overcome. First off, cost is a much bigger factor in home-brewed biology than it has ever been in computing. Second, assuming that some of DIY DNA’s discoveries would ultimately have to be converted into mundane intellectual property (IP) even to be applied effectively in the developing world, let alone in developed countries, the “quick-and-dirty” approach might well be too “dirty” to ever become the underlying IP for a biotech or diagnostics startup. It is no coincidence that a typical biotech company raises $100 million or more before it achieves a viable proof of concept for a new therapeutic. And that is just the beginning.
The best science writing reads like science fiction, introducing people, techniques and discoveries right now that make us feel like the future has arrived and it’s even shinier and newer than we thought it would be. Although neither a critical discovery nor a galvanizing leader has emerged from this potent stew, Biopunk succeeds in thought-provokingly preparing us for the new world that will greet us when they do.
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*Steampunk photo courtesy Curious Expeditions under Creative Commons license
Further reading: DIY DNA in art and science fiction
(Special thanks to EW for these recommendations)
Margaret Atwood’s provocative novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood explore some possible and frightening futures.
Strange Culture is an indie film chronicling the strange story, also retold in Biopunk, of artist and professor Steve Kurtz who, according to the Netflix plot summary “on the eve of his new exhibit, was shocked by the news that his wife had died of heart failure. The medics on the scene became suspicious of Kurtz’s artistic media, which includes genetically modified foods, and the FBI accused him of bioterrorism.”