Book review: Biopunk: kitchen-counter scientists hack the software of life

This brief book review by Frank Norman was first published in the 2011/2012 Mill Hill Essays.

Bill Gates famously became the wealthiest man in the world through his passion for IT. He was a computer hacker who turned into a businessman and he inspired subsequent generations of IT innovators, such as the founders of Google and Facebook. In IT the hackers, non- professionals just tinkering with computers, have been very influential. Bill Gates said a couple of years ago “if you want to change the world, you should start with biological molecules”. Currently most biological research takes place in formal institutions – university and institute laboratories – but the DIY biology movement, as described in this book, seeks to bring the hacker spirit of Bill Gates and others to bio-research, to “increase the tinkerability” of biology.

Some of the examples of what has been achieved are extraordinary. One DIY biologist has built her own test for haemochromatosis; others (LavaAmp; Open PCR) built thermal cyclers at one-tenth the price it would have cost commercially.These can perform reliable DNA tests for infectious diseases – potentially making cheap, portable diagnostics kits available for the developing world. Others have developed software for synthetic biology (Clotho) and very cheap instrumentation for neuroscience experiments (SpikerBox). Enthusiasts are driven by various motives – self-interest, the desire to do good, a delight in tinkering – but they are generally not inspired by traditional biotech business models and they see openness as the ideal way to advance ideas.

Public awareness of genetics, DNA and other areas of biotech has grown in recent decades.Those people described in this book as “biopunks” have optimism about the power of biotech to do good but see the need to further open up the conversation around biotech. Getting people involved in hands-on biology seems like a great way to do this, helping them to reconnect with a sense of wonder about science.The phenomenon of DIY biology is an important and fascinating topic, and Marcus Wohlsen has done a good job at drawing together what is going on (mostly in the USA). I found the journalistic style of the book a little wearying at times. Also, when he delves into history, I was unconvinced by his portrayal of Mendel, Crick and Watson as amateur tinkerers. Or rather, if they were all tinkerers then so are the rest of current-day biological researchers. Most scientific research does involve a good deal of tinkering, or trial and error with a bit of luck thrown in.The biopunks probably have more in common with those in what Wohlsen described as “buttoned-up labs” than they realize.

Biopunk: kitchen-counter scientists hack the software of life, by Marcus Wohlsen is published by Current, 2011.7

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