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Biopunk by Marcus Wohlsen. ( )

Biopunks Tinker With The Building Blocks Of Life

by NPR Staff
May 19, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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Journalist Marcus Wohlsen is a reporter for The Associated Press, focusing on biotechnology, genetic testing and bioethics. You can follow him on Twitter @MarcusWohlsen.

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The word "biotechnology" conjures up white coats and elaborate glassware, big sterile labs and expensive equipment.

But there's a group of amateur scientists that believes it shouldn't be that way — that anyone with the ability and a few spare parts can start tinkering with the building blocks of life. They call themselves biopunks, or biohackers.

"It's an ethic; it's an ideal," journalist Marcus Wohlsen tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "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."

Wohlsen has written a new book about the movement: Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life.

He says biohackers probably won't do anything like curing cancer; that's too complicated a task. But what they're doing is still important — taking castaway bits of mainstream science and making them useful.

"One of the real sort of tenets of the biopunk movement is resourcefulness," he says. "A sense that we're going to do it however we can figure out how to do it."

Wohlsen points to the example of Kay Aull, an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was worried that she might develop the same genetic disorder her father suffered from. It's called hemochromatosis, an inability to absorb iron that if left untreated can destroy the liver, heart and pancreas. Rather than take an expensive test for the disorder, Aull decided she would design her own DIY genetic test.

Using things she found in her kitchen and a few pieces of equipment found at a discounter online, Aull was able to build herself a working lab. "She actually was able to fit it all in her closet," Wohlsen says. "This isn't some sprawling, white lab-coat affair. And she told me she appointed her cat her chief safety officer. She said, 'If it's too dangerous for him, it's too dangerous for me.'"

But what about the danger that unregulated amateur biotechnology might pose? Wohlsen says we shouldn't worry too much.

"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," he says. "This isn't what the biohackers are doing right now, or capable of doing right now, or desiring to do."

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