Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life

Marcus Wohlsen has covered startup culture, the maker scene, and the marijuana industry as a reporter in the San Francisco bureau of The Associated Press. His first book, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, was published this week by Current. I asked him to contribute a few pieces about the biotech underground to run on Boing Boing. Here's the first one.


HACK/OPEN: DNA, DIY and the right to do

The first time I met Meredith Patterson, she lived in a weird old apartment building plunked down in Pacific Heights, just below where the street rose to an epic view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate. Christmas trees glowed in the windows of the mansions nearby. Inside, the walk-up's arches, doors and sconces gave off a cheesy 1940s Hollywood "Moorish" vibe. I didn't know what to expect a DNA hacker's lair to look like, because I had no idea who would want to hang out at home tinkering with genes in the first place.

But I should have guessed Meredith. If she hadn't existed, screenwriters would have invented her. Tattoos. Gauged ears. A smoker. Black t-shirt. Black leather trench coat. Boxes of disemboweled electronics littering the apartment. Shelves sagging with heavy tomes of sci-fi, coding manuals, linguistics texts and histories of cryptography. The consummate hacker chick before the English-speaking world had ever heard of Lisbeth Salander.

Her wet lab was on the dining room table. The setup included a hot plate, yogurt containers, beakers, dozens of small plastic vials and a jerry-rigged thermal cycler, a kind of glorified crock pot that serves as the essential gene-brewing tool in almost all modern biotech. We spent the next hour or so chatting as she filled tube after tube with a clear liquid that she assured me contained both yogurt bacteria and the jellyfish gene she planned to splice into it. Like hackers of every stripe, she was playing with this stuff because has a compulsive need to tweak. And like so many hackers, she thought her hack could change the world.

As Patterson hunched over the table in late 2008, China was mired in scandal over tainted infant formula that had sickened thousands and killed at least four. The deaths exposed a longstanding practice among Chinese dairy producers of cutting milk powder with melamine, an organic compound commonly used to make plastics. The toxin could fool nutritional tests to make the milk appear to contain more protein than it did. Like heroin dealers, the dairy producers "stepped on" their milk powder to stretch the supply further.

Standard tests for melamine involve mass spectrometers — cumbersome, expensive, complex pieces of lab equipment useful for testing the food supply at the distribution level or after someone gets sick. Patterson reasoned that this method wouldn't help a Chinese peasant farmer staring down a bottle of formula trying to decide whether to feed her baby. That mother needs immediate results. And those results need to come cheap.

Yogurt is cheap, as are jellyfish. Buy a tub of yogurt at Trader Joe's as Patterson had done and you have a theoretically limitless supply of Lacto bacilli as long as you keep feeding them a little bit of milk sugar. For about $(removed) from Carolina Biological Supply you can get a high school AP biology kit that contains the jellyfish gene you need to make green fluorescent protein. It was this jellyfish gene Patterson was trying to splice with the yogurt bacteria the night I hung out with her.

The "melaminometer," as Patterson and her collaborators called their hack, ends up sounding oddly simple for a radical feat of genetic engineering. Jack the genes for a melamine-sensitive protein into the yogurt bacteria. Concoct a chemical trigger that sets off the jellyfish gene. Suddenly you have a $(removed) vial into which the mother in China adds a few drops of formula. If there's melamine, it glows green. Voila: A user-friendly, consumer-grade detector that enables crowdsourced safety monitoring of the world's food supply. Someone call Bill and Melinda Gates.

So why two years later does the melaminometer remain just an idea? From the OpenWetWare wiki tracking the effort: "This project has not moved forward due to inability for synthetic biology labs to scope engineering of a suitable detector as proposed by this design. Thus, this project is currently vaporware, until technology can catch up to the proposed genetic circuit." In other words, the engineering for the last few parts, like so much else in modern biology, is just too damn hard right now.

Which kicks the question back to the apparent absurdity of trying to build a genetically engineered melamine detector in your dining room in the first place. Why not leave the do-it-yourself projects to the coders, the steampunks, the Arduino jocks? The stuff that we know is doable — and safe?

For Patterson, part of the issue is she believes no company could find adequate profit potential in a project like the melaminometer, aimed at the world's poorest people, which leaves a DIY solution as the only realistic approach. The biotech mainstream doesn't buy it, arguing that the technology just hasn't arrived.

But the issue runs deeper for Patterson, and the growing number of biohackers around the world. Success at this point seems incidental to the ambitious crews setting up community wet labs, trading gel buffer recipes online and getting their open-source DNA replicators funded on Kickstarter. For these groups, as for Patterson, the measure of success is in the doing — and in claiming the right to do.

"We reject the popular perception that science is only done in million-dollar university, government, or corporate labs; we assert that the right of freedom of inquiry, to do research and pursue understanding under one's own direction, is as fundamental a right as that of free speech or freedom of religion," Patterson writes in A Biopunk Manifesto, a biohacker call-to-arms she wrote last year.

"We have no quarrel with Big Science; we merely recall that Small Science has always been just as critical to the development of the body of human knowledge, and we refuse to see it extinguished."

Tomorrow: Safety/Risk

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