Curing diseases from a garage

By A Contributor

BIOPUNK: DIY SCIENTISTS HACK THE SOFTWARE OF LIFE. Marcus Wohlsen. London: Current. 2011. 240 pp. $25.95 hard cover.

Shalin Hai-Jew Contributing Writer

When people typically think of do-it-yourself projects, they think about fixes around the house or simple automotive fixes. Some “biopunks” would like people to think of DIY as scientists experimenting with DNA to improve human health and the biosphere.

Marcus Wohlsen’s “Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life” describes this biopunk movement through the lives and experiences of some of those at its forefront, who are building the underlying myths, the principles, the tools, and the methods and practices.

Inspired by the stories of information technology innovators who started companies in their garages, and cyber hackers who achieve various acts of daring, DIY biohackers promote their endeavors with an effusive sense of the possibilities.

Citizen scientists would have access to low-cost tests to evaluate their own genetic makeup for hereditary disease potential. Those in developing countries would not be dependent on for-profit pharmaceutical companies in developed countries for medicines to treat their own health issues or for outside companies to help test for certain diseases.

During a disease pandemic, DIY-ers could strive to provide a solution through genetic research. “When a global pandemic is looming, there can be no target riper for the hacking than the swine flu itself,” writes Wohlsen.

Researchers could eschew the pursuit of profit and share their findings with each other for crowd-sourced wisdom-and create a virtual environment that incubates talent. Practitioners from various interdisciplinary fields could offer fresh eyes on bio-engineering challenges. Bio-engineered products could reach markets with more efficiencies. A dabbler could emerge with a jackpot finding that could not only shift the world on its axis but earn the maker untold billions. This is the idealized version.

Bioengineer Meredith Patterson, who introduced “A Biopunk Manifesto” at the Outlaw Biology conference in early 2010 in Los Angeles, explains: “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.”

The author, an AP reporter focusing on science, begins mapping out the human terrain of this movement by connecting with those who’ve started “biopunk” organizations, held bio-hacking conferences, and started electronic mailing lists to promote the movement.

Biohacking “is about engineering elegant, creative, self-reliant solutions to doing biology while relying not on institutions but wits. The solution is the hack. Hacks do not require fancy lab equipment, federal funding, or peer review. They simply need as many hands, eyes, and brains focused on a problem as possible,” writes Wohlsen.

Members of DIYbio based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggest that the life sciences should not just be in the purview of academics, corporations, and governments-which they see a rife with bureaucracy.

They see the advancements in computers, genetics and engineering as converging to a state where “tinkerers and hobbyists without advanced degrees will soon be able to perform sophisticated feats of genetic engineering at home.”

At CodeCon in San Francisco, described as the “premier anticorporate underground hacker fest,” he met up with a young MIT graduate who put herself through school working at a DNA synthesis company. She flippantly asserts that she could have experimented with polio if she wanted as a company employee. For her experiments, she bought a $10,000 cell incubator for $90 off of eBay, and she used a rice cooker and whiskey tumbler to make distilled water. Her chief safety officer? Her cat. “If he can’t play with it, I can’t either.”) Her goal is to find a DNA solution for hemochromatosis, a hereditary disease for which she has a genetic mutation and family history.

Others profiled in “Biopunk” seemed to like the rebel sensibility of the movement and enjoyed the accoutrement of the lifestyle (a robotic arm bought off Craigslist, the edgy conversations, and maybe even the Matrix-like leather coats) more than actual progress or accomplishments.

There are more formal moves to both spark and harness this movement. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which was started from the bioengineering program at MIT in 2004, attracted a handful of participants its first year but has been held every year since, and in 2010, some 180 teams participated. The teams manipulated DNA from BioBrick kits, which held universally interlocking genetic components.

“By combining DNA parts of the teams’ choosing from the kit, students have engineered devices from blinking cells to banana-scented bacteria to arsenic biosensors. One of the competition’s founding principles is a commitment to sharing and collaboration borrowed from the open-source software movement. All parts are documented in the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, an online resource that operates on the ‘give a penny, take a penny’ principle. The registry, maintained at MIT, will send team members DNA parts that they request. Invent a new part? Add it to the registry to benefit everyone,” writes Wohlsen.

The author found frontline innovators creating low-cost tools to enable DNA research and engineering. A researcher in Venezuela, Guido Núñez-Mujica was working on a portable and low-cost test for Chagas disease. Tito Jankowski and Norm Wang co-created a low-cost gel box that can let researchers know whether or not their DNA samples are developing correctly. Further, Jankowski and Josh Perfetto are working on a low-cost Open PCR machine.

Joseph Jackson invented a low-cost thermal cycler, the LavaAmp tool which runs on AA batteries. This machine is “a basic piece of biotech equipment that rapidly replicates DNA. The regular rise and fall in temperature of a thermal cycler makes possible what’s known as a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.” This enables the duplication of DNA and the copying of specific DNA snippets. The LavaAmp could be used in developing countries to help identify the presence of particular germs, with only a small set of primers, or the short strands of genetic alphabet that mark the start- and endpoints of the DNA snippet serving as a disease marker.

Dr. Tim Marzullo, creator of Backyard Brains, created a SpikerBox that helps observe and measure action potential nerve impulses (which he demonstrated by using a severed cockroach leg). Other innovators are working to mainstream the use of microfluidic chips to test for specific pathogens in bodily fluids.

Mackenzie Cowell purchased a mobile wet lab in a shipping container to be used as the Boston Open-Source Science Lab (BOSSlab) for citizen science. Nearby, Sprout & Company “holds everything a budding biohacker would crave. Two machines for Xeroxing DNA. A squat, steel, sterilizing autoclave, the biolab equivalent of a pressure cooker, complete with a vintage Mad Men-era analog pressure gauge sticking up off the lid. An electric stirring rod. Tiny centrifuges. A hulking microscope, a rack of pipettes, a deep freezer to calm squirming microbes, and a bright-orange FLAMMABLE LIQUID STORAGE covered in magnetic poetry.”

The history of life science and medical discoveries is replete with discoveries made in labs “less sophisticated than today’s kitchens.” There have been false leads (including Hippocrates’ idea that “all sickness was caused by the ‘vapors’ and imbalances among blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm, aka the four ‘humors’”-which lasted two thousand years).

There were practices which would be considered wholly barbaric today-testing variolation on children, injecting cancer cells into live prisoners to test the immune system response, not to mention the use of biological agents in human testing against POWs in WWII. It is that blighted history that has led to strict human protections against various types of research.

The threat in amateur and professional bio-engineering is the risk of a “black swan” anomaly that may cause outsized damage to the biosphere and its inhabitants.

“A biohacker who is either careless and unlucky or brilliant and evil could someday theoretically unleash a swine flu variant that resists all treatment by known antivirals and has no off switch,” writes Wohlsen. (As a side note, there was news recently that two scientists funded by the US National Institutes of Health have engineered a highly pathogenic form of the H5N1 bird flu virus. The government has requested that they refrain from publishing part of their research which may be used to weaponize an already dangerous pathogenic agent with a 60 percent fatality rate.)

Governments severely restrict various biologic agents and DNA code sequences that are known to be high-risk. (Some high-risk agents are cultivable from the natural environment, though.) Scientists who work with high-risk chemical agents have to be vetted and certified, and they must work in controlled, high biosecurity level laboratories. Sensitive research is embargoed and inaccessible to the general public without security clearances.

Law enforcement has an interest in setting up early warning systems of possible bio-terrorism and emergent threats, from without and from within. At one biopunk conference, the FBI had a table to recruit for their biodefense program. At an iGEM competition, an FBI Special Agent in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Countermeasures Unit 1, Bioterrorism Prevention Program was there as a friendly representative to keep the lines of communication open with the community and to engage in community policing.

While recombinant DNA has been part of the landscape for decades-with patented transgenic corn, cotton, and soy; biotech drugs; and genetically engineered biofuels, this field is highly contested.

There have been court battles over what genetic elements may be patented. Courts are debating whether the use of familial DNA (known as “comparative genomics”) is appropriate to solve crimes. Direct-to-consumer genomics is in question with the revelation of the poor quality of genetic counseling and the prevalence of misinformation.

Some are pushing to professionalize biotechnology as an engineering discipline which may be regulated and controlled. In the current status quo, there are the professionals working in a highly controlled field and then the “biopunks” who want to innovate on the margins.

Based in San Francisco, Wohlsen is a graduate of Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He reports for the Associated Press.

Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.

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