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Biological Hackers 'Demystify' Genetics with Do-It-Yourself Biology


When computers were first invented, they seemed so complicated — so mysterious — that the lay person could never understand them. Even Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM, doubted that computers would ever become popular. In the 21st century, it's almost unheard of not to own a computer — the more sophisticated, the better. And if a company can't deliver what you want, you buy the components and build it yourself.

When the human draft genome was finally completed in 2000, genetics seemed as complicated and mysterious to most people as computers did in the 1950s. Many hoped that having a working draft of the human genome meant that various diseases could now be treated more easily, and that scientists could finally find a cure for cancer.

But achieving these goals has taken more time than perhaps the public would like. The depth of complexity of the genome — and the proteome, the transcriptome, the microbiome — has created more questions than it has answered. So, just like when enterprising do-it-yourself-minded people such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak decided to make the computer a household good, DIY biologists are stepping in to make genetics a little less scary and — they hope — a lot more productive.

The subjects of Associated Press reporter Marcus Wohlsen's first book, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, are these sometimes self-taught, kitchen-counter "biogeeks," like Kay Aull who is trying to, as she says, "demystify the [science] process." These are people who believe that "biology is too important to be left in the hands of experts," Wohlsen writes — people who are taking control of their biology, who aren't waiting for researchers or regulators to tell them what genetics means or how it works.

The book itself offers a fascinating peek into the minds of people who are a little bit brilliant, a whole lot enterprising, and perhaps a bit too stubborn for their own good. Wohlsen doesn't make judgments about who they are and what they're doing, and doesn't speculate on the potential risks of such enterprises. He allows the reader to do all of that — to wonder if the benefit the science community could see from such citizen-scientists outweighs the risks of bad science, to ask whether such open-source genomic study is safe in a world where biological terrorism is a reality, to think about what all those minds working together without the restraints of establishment science could come up with.

Wohlsen's book is a collection of vignettes about regular people — like Aull, who developed her own genetic test for hemochromatosis with what she had in her kitchen and a hundred dollars' worth of equipment that she bought online; or Andrew Hessel, who is trying to turn his co-op, Pink Army, into the "Linux of cancer," where each member contributes information about treatments that work and ones that don't in a crowd-sourcing attempt to find effective therapies. These "biopunks" don't care about money, and they reject the idea that good science can only be done with expensive equipment in a lab.

Wohlsen's book is worth the read, if only for the sake of marveling at how much these do-it-yourselfers can accomplish with so few resources. But even though you may find yourself skeptical about what these citizen scientists are doing, it's hard not to come away from Biopunk without feeling at least a little bit inspired.

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