Do-it-yourself comes to biotechnology in the form of young geeks who tinker with DNA in the garage, the kitchen or wherever they can set up a lab bench.
According to AP reporter Wohlsen, these DIY scientists are passionate biology graduates or post-docs, savvy in the ways of molecular biology and computers and possessed of a libertarian streak. They want open access to information and oppose the kind of data control and patent rights they see embodied by academics, biotech firms or government bureaucrats. In this debut, the author profiles leading “biopunks” who believe that free access to crowd-sourced information is the key to rapid innovation. Their idea of a “hack” is not the breaking and entering of a computer system for illicit purposes, but a term that means they have gotten tools and materials on the cheap and used them to develop diagnostic tests, drugs or even new organisms. Indeed they have: Wohlsen describes a cheap PCR machine (for replicating bits of DNA), a woman who devised a test for a genetic disease that runs in her family and some ingenious designs for cancer-targeting drugs. Some biopunks have formed groups like DIYbio, which makes biology accessible to citizen scientists; others are futurist “transhumanists” who dream of extending life spans and importing computer chips in their brains. If this information makes you anxious or worried about socio/legal/ethical issues, lack of regulation, privacy concerns or DIYers creating Frankensteins, Wohlsen’s discussions of these issues will hardly reassure. On the one hand, the FBI wrongly cracked down on one legit scientist (and now appears to be promoting friendly information exchanges). On the other, the suggestion that it’s cheaper to make your own weaponized anthrax or ricin, rather than a brand new microbe, is no comfort.
Though there are not yet any solutions to the legal and ethical issues, Wolhsen provides a timely airing of what may be going on in a backyard near you.