Biopunks Tinker With The Building Blocks Of Life Journalist Marcus Wohlsen's new book explores the world of biopunks — amateur biotechnologists who believe science should be available to all, not confined to universities and corporate labs.

Biopunks Tinker With The Building Blocks Of Life

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Here's a story about an MIT student named Kay Aull. When she turned 19, she was worried she might inherit a genetic disorder from her dad, a condition that if untreated would destroy her liver, heart and pancreas.

So she decided that instead of paying for an expensive DNA test, she'd build her own genetic testing kit, and she did it with stuff that she found lying around the kitchen.

Then there's story of two amateur biologists from San Francisco who built their own DNA Xerox machine. Anyway, they're all part of a group of do-it-yourself scientists. They're known as biopunks.

And journalist Marcus Wohlsen spent a year tracking down some of these folks, and he's written a new book about the scene. It's called "Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life." And Marcus Wohlsen joins me. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARCUS WOHLSEN (Author, "Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life"): Hi, Guy, thanks for having me.

RAZ: So this young woman that I just mentioned, Kay Aull, how did she build her genetic testing kit with some common household items, like MacGyver, right?

Mr. WOHLSEN: Kind of like MacGyver but also kind of like a committed eBay shopper. One of the real sort of tenets of the biopunk movement is resourcefulness, a sense that we're going to do it however we can figure out how to do it. And so, let's use whatever's out there.

And so, you know, we'll go on eBay, we'll go on Craigslist, and this stuff is available, and sometimes you can get it for really cheap.

So, you know, she was able to cobble together a basic wet lab. She actually was able to fit it all in her closet.

RAZ: In her closet.

Mr. WOHLSEN: Yeah, this isn't some sprawling, white-lab-coat affair. And she told me she appointed her cat her chief safety officer. She said that if it's too dangerous for him, it's too dangerous for me.

RAZ: That's just one of the amazing stories in this book. But before we get to more of them, can you describe the biopunk, I guess is it ethic, would you say? I mean, you don't have to be affiliated with a university. You don't have to be affiliated with a research lab. You just need to have an idea and to go with it. Is that basically what it is?

Mr. WOHLSEN: I think that's right. It's an ethic; it's an ideal. The one common characteristic that everybody had who I met is this very raw idealism, this very strong belief in science, this very strong belief in technology, this very strong belief that anybody who wants it should be able to have access to both of these things.

You know, in a way, it's this kind of romanticism about getting back to the raw curiosity that fueled the whole invention of science in the first place. It's kind of taking a look at the quote-unquote system that exists right now, all of the baggage that comes along with it, whether it's trying to get, you know, tenure, venture capital funding for your biotech company, that's saying, you know, all of this extra stuff gets in the way of the pure pursuit of knowledge.

RAZ: When I was reading the book, I kept thinking back to actual - I know the book's called biopunk, but I kept thinking about actual punk, as in punk music, when, you know, you had musicians in the sort of late-'70s saying you don't need a studio, you don't need a record label, you don't even need to know how to play instruments. You just need to make some noise, and there you go, you can make music. Is that a fair analogy?

Mr. WOHLSEN: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. Punk, you know, really became a big deal about the time we first figured out how to splice genes. So - but yeah, there's a feeling right now that let's just play with this. Let's just see what we can do.

RAZ: You write about I think they are two amateur biologists. They've created something called the open PCR, which you describe as a DNA Xerox machine. First of all, what does it do?

Mr. WOHLSEN: So it's really one of the basic tools of modern biotechnology. And what it does is it lets you isolate the little snippet of DNA that you want and make a whole lot of copies of it.

You know, in order to do any kind of biotechnology, you need a lot of DNA, and so this is a technology that was invented in the Bay Area back in the early '80s, and it sounds really fancy. You know, for a long time, you had to spend thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars on the machine that made this possible.

So, enter Tito Jankowski(ph) and Josh Profetto(ph), those are the two guys who built the open PCR. They said: This shouldn't cost so much money because it's a device that heats up, that cools down and heats up again.

RAZ: I'm speaking with reporter Marcus Wohlsen, who's written a new book called "Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life." It's about amateur scientists who are trying to revolutionize biotechnology.

Here's a question. How - I mean, realistically, Marcus, I mean, you've talked to some of these biopunks and seen them at work. I mean, how can they compete with a huge pharmaceutical company or a huge biotech company with 10,000, 15,000 researchers or workers, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in research money behind them, you know, versus one or two guys working in their garage? I mean, what are they really going to come up with?

Mr. WOHLSEN: Well, you know, the thing is, in a sense, they don't have to compete because, you know, whatever the ideals they have are of achieving some kind of great scientific breakthrough, what they might really be doing is taking the stuff that these big companies have come up with that they don't really care about anymore or find that interesting and finding new ways to use it.

You know, PCR machines are not breakthrough technologies, but putting them in the hands of anybody who wants one, that's kind of a new thing. You know, so what their value might ultimately prove to be is in taking stuff that already exists and finding new ways to use it.

RAZ: And of course, the question that is probably on everyone's mind right now is: If these biohackers can do some of these amazing things, I mean, couldn't they accidentally or maybe intentionally do something bad, you know, like unleash smallpox?

Mr. WOHLSEN: It's a tricky question. You know, in theory, the danger is there. Science has the ability to create a polio virus from scratch or to create a smallpox virus from scratch. But, you know, in reality, these are still things that are challenging for professional scientists. This isn't what the biohackers are doing right now or capable of doing right now or desiring to do.

So you could worry about that. You could worry that somebody would make a big mistake and create a sort of microbial version of Frankenstein's monster or, you know, a terrorist might start playing with this stuff and create something nefarious.

But, you know, really, if you're going to start questioning whether it's safe for people to be doing this at home, you really have to start questioning, you know, the whole field of biotechnology and genetic engineering and where it's moving.

I mean, it's getting cheaper than ever to manipulate DNA. Whether it's happening at home or whether it's happening in a lab somewhere, these tools and these techniques are going to be available. So it's more a question of, you know, as a society what we think about genetic engineering in general, if you're going to start to worry about whether this is safe or not.

RAZ: That's reporter Marcus Wohlsen. His new book is called "Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life." Marcus, thank you so much.

Mr. WOHLSEN: Hey, thank you.

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