Transcript for Marcus Wohlsen on Biopunks

Jim Fleming:  In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Bill Gates said that if were a teenager today he would not be into computing, he’d be hacking biology. He said, “if you want to change the world in some big way, that’s where you start; biological molecules”. Well hacking biology huh? It’s not Science Fiction anymore, welcome to the 21st Century, and the Bio-punk movement where bio-hacking and kitchen table biotech are the norm. Steve Paulson sat down with journalist Marcus Wohlsen, author of Bio-punk, to find out more about these DIY bio-engineers; like is this legal?

Marcus Wohlsen: Well it certainly has attracted the attention of law enforcement especially sort of when the movement kind of first self-identified, which I would say happened about 2008, it didn’t take long for the FBI to come skulking around different events and getting in touch with people. As I researched this, what I found out is that it didn’t really take the form of a crackdown, because it isn’t clear that the people at least who are open about what they are doing are doing anything illegal. The rules in the U.S. at least, are not as strict as you might think around doing at least kind of basic forms of genetic manipulation as they are in other countries where to do any kind of genetic engineering at all you need to get a license from the government.

Steve Paulson: We should talk about some of the causes that the Bio-punks have embraced. For instance, going back to 2009 and the Swine-flu outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control announced that it would not reveal the genome sequence of the H1N1 virus, and this infuriated the Bio-punk movement. Why were they so upset about this?

Wohlsen: Well because their thinking goes, that the more minds that you have attacking a problem, the more likely you are to solve that problem. And that’s kind of the gospel of the open-source software movement, which had some pretty strong successes and not only is it sort of talking about say the Firefox web browser or something like that, that non-profits have developed. But you know you look at a company like Google or a company like Twitter; you know they open up their platforms to developers of all kinds. They give you a way to interface with the code so you can make new things, and Bio-punks looked at that Silicon Valley model and they say “we should be able to do that too”. And so when swine flu hit, there was this feeling of well why keep this closed off, especially because it’s such a serious and urgent or at least at the time seemed like a very serious and urgent need to figure out how to combat this, what people thought was going to possibly be a plague, put it out there and let the wisdom of the crowd take its course and maybe we’ll solve this problem faster.

Paulson:  Well let’s talk about some of the people that whom you’ve identified as bio-punks. For instance, there is a self-taught bio-engineer named Meredith Patterson; tell me about her work.

Wohlsen: Meredith was one of the first people I met, and in some ways she sort of fit exactly the image that you might think of somebody who you’d call a Bio-punk. She was sort of tattooed, long trench-coat wearing, purple hair having hacker chick. And she had this idea of creating a bio-sensor you might call it, using little more than the bacteria that you can go buy at your grocery story that comes in a tub of yogurt. And what she and a couple colleagues were trying to figure out, and I use that term loosely these are other people online that are part of the bio-punk movement, they wanted to figure out a way to hack the genome of this yogurt bacteria to glow fluorescent green in the presence of a toxin that had been found in the dairy supply in China that had actually made a lot of children sick and even killed a few babies. That sounds incredibly, to me at least at the time it sounded like an incredible sort of science fiction notion, but as it turns out this gene that creates this protein that causes things to glow fluorescent is one of the sort of basic tools in bio-tech. And it exists in nature in jellyfish and in squid and its used as a kind of a singular in all kinds of genetic-engineering experiments, and so to actually get that gene into the genome of the yogurt bacteria in a way is the very simplest kind of tasks in genetic-engineering, if you can call genetic-engineering simple.

Paulson: And this woman Meredith Patterson went on to make something of a name for herself and actually wrote a Bio-punk manifesto.

 Wohlsen: That’s right, it’s really in some ways the clearest articulation of the ideals I was talking about of this movement. And Meredith represents sort of one facet of this movement where it really is about claiming your right to knowledge. That’s certainly how she thinks about it and in that way she really embraces the DIY spirit, that knowledge is something that’s out there that anyone with a brain should have a right to pursue. And if that means setting up a genetic-engineering lab in your home, if you have the know-how and the desire, you shouldn’t feel like you have to get somebody else’s stamp of approval in order to do that.

Paulson: You know it’s pretty exciting hearing about how some of these young, sometimes self taught, bio-punks manage to do all of this. There’s a potentially very dangerous side to all of this as well, I mean we’re talking about genetic-engineering; we’re talking about messing with some potentially dangerous viruses here; I mean something could go very, very wrong, right?

Wohlsen: In theory that’s right. Again, when you talk about a computer virus, ultimately that’s a metaphor. When you’re talking about biology, that virus is real. Now what I’ve learned in following these folks around and talking to scientists and trying to understand this question around risk, is that there really is a much greater likelihood that somebody messing around with genes in their house is going to simply end up with a failed experiment rather than something that could get into the water supply or float out the window and hurt people.

Paulson: There’s also a Doctor Frankenstein scenario here, I mean that the idea that genetically altered human beings are in our future and I mean that’s certainly something that could conceivably be created in one of these dining room labs, right?

Wohlsen: Well anything is conceivable, scientifically, not anytime soon. But I think what’s interesting is that definitely among the Bio-punks, there’s what I’d call a bio-libertarian strain, and you hear talk about what they kind of see as a bias or a prejudice towards what’s seen as natural  and this idea that there’s a kind of baseline genetic profile that is the way nature intended something to be. And so, they’re really open, some folks I’m not going to say everyone, but some folks are very open to the idea of genetically manipulating ourselves in kind of a scenario where we you know have a tail, we have wings, we have a way of creating energy by genetically altering chlorophyll and its under our skin and we don’t have to eat anymore. You know these are the kinds of ideas that science fiction writers play with, but science fiction has had a funny way of becoming science fact, so among this group of people you definitely I think have an inclination among many towards this feeling that evolution is something that happens and that if you look at the history of life, life is always changing. Now we have the ability to direct that evolution, and you know we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

Fleming: Marcus Wohlsen is the author of “Bio-punk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life”, Steve Paulson spoke with him.

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