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Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life Hardcover – April 14, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1617230028 ISBN-10: 1617230022 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Current; 1st edition (April 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1617230022
  • ISBN-13: 978-1617230028
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,017,369 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Biopunks, as defined by AP science and technology reporter Wohlsen, are part of a loosely knit, multifaceted movement to find ways to permit people to engage in DNA research without the restrictions and costs imposed by the scientific and medical establishment. Practitioners, some self-taught, set up shop in their kitchens or garages, believing that significant biological advances are more likely to occur as more people get involved in the enterprise. For the most part opposed to intellectual property rights, they prefer the open-source model used to design some computer software. Although biopunks have not yet made any significant scientific advances, they view themselves as "simplifying and domesticating" biology. Though his prose is a bit dry, Wohlsen introduces some fascinating, altruistic individuals, people who would like to fight disease without profit as their primary motive. While Wohlsen conveys, and seems to share, their excitement, he provides little critical commentary on their prospects for success. He also splits his attention between true DIYers and others who are working outside the scientific establishment because they haven't been able to find jobs or funding. Similarly, modest sections on bioterrorism and potentially dangerous experiments in genetic engineering seem largely unconnected to his main focus. (Apr.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Wohlsen discovers that biohackers, like the open-source programmers and software hackers who came before, are united by a profound idealism. ... He offers few opinions of his own but raises the questions we need to begin asking. -Technology Review

"His fascinating profiles of biohackers reveal how they embody some of the great contradictions of our modern age: our fear of and desire for power over the stuff of life." -Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses

The rise of (biohackers) is entertainingly documented in a new book by science writer Marcus Wohlsen, Biopunk, which describes the parallels between today's generation of biological innovators and the rise of computer software pioneers. -The Guardian

Biopunk will be essential reading for anyone interested in the convergence of open source and biotechnology. -OStatic

Provides a reliable point of departure for navigating this contentious new terrain, and ultimately presents biohacking as a playful approach to science that renders science a playful approach to life. -New Scientist

Customer Reviews

This is a well-written, well-researched, and thoughtful book that's a pleasure to read.
There are many great references that I plan on going back and looking up on the internet to find out more.
Brian D. Wilson
If you've got a teenager with an interest in science, you should have them read this book.
Rachel Berbiglia

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By wimufi on June 2, 2011
Format: Hardcover
For a full-length review, please see my blog entry on the 5AM Solutions web site. Excerpts:

"I was excited to read this book since I am very interested in bioinformatics and punk (although the book has nothing to do with punk music). Although I wouldn't call myself a practitioner of do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, I do work for a very entrepreneurial bioinformatics and software company. The general theme of Biopunk by Marcus Wohlsen, is that we are arguably reaching a point in biotechnology similar to where computing technology was in the 1970's. That is, where the germ of successful companies can grow out of innovations by a handful of people working on a shoestring in garages and basements. Think about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting Apple in their garage, or Bill Gates and Paul Allen starting Microsoft while barely 20 years old. The point, echoed by many of the people who show up in the book, is that until recently biotechnological innovation has been only accessible to scientists at commercial companies or in academic labs.

Biopunk has tons of good raw material and no end of interesting stories (bridges made of trees, a lab engineering bacteria to produce malaria medicine, etc.) but not all of them seem relevant to the main thrust of the book (that malaria lab is a commercial ones, not DIY). If Wohlsen had expanded his book to cover more territory and taken more care to weave these stories together, it could have been a powerful summary of current trends and future predictions in biotechnology."
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Rachel Berbiglia on April 16, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book for anyone who has an interest in science, or wants to see advances in medicine at greater rates that we've seen them so far. You don't have to know science to read this book. It is written so that people with no scientific background can understand the science. If you've got a teenager with an interest in science, you should have them read this book. It will inspire them to broaden their horizons beyond the typical research lab.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Shlok Vaidya VINE VOICE on April 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover
A tremendous introduction to one of the most exciting branches of individual superempowerment emerging today. The book is structured around the key figures in this movement today, and tells their stories quite well. It's not an exhaustive academic tome and doesn't try to be (appropriately so). I started out pretty familiar with this subject matter (having done much of the same research myself, including interacting with some of the people in the book), but learned a few things and `met' some very interesting people along the way.

Marcus Wohlsen does a great job laying out the contours of the movement. You get the culture, the philosophy they build on, the historical backing for their work, where they currently stand (without some major leaps, there's not a big chance of anyone solving cancer in their home wetlab) and where they're possibly headed. He also addresses the security threat (of course there is one, but the problem is social deviants, not these DIY garage hackers of living things).

Overall, it becomes clear that the most interesting times for biopunk are ahead. They're limited by a lack of cheap toolkits, good enough processes, funding, and knowledge. As they accomplish more over the coming years, they're going to have to deal with regulation and taking things to market. It's an interesting frontier and Wohlsen does this justice.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By lit-in-the-last-frontier on July 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book definitely has an interesting premise in its theme of do-it-yourself biohackers championing open-sourcing of intellectual property in an effort to pool research regarding DNA. Don't let the science scare you; author Marcus Wohlsen makes biology and the blueprint of life very accessible. In essence, this work deals with young, bright individuals who set up biology wet labs in their garages and kitchens and attempt to do for DNA what Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did for computers. They are driven by the belief that free access to one another's findings, as opposed to the strict confidentiality of the major biotech companies, will lead to major discoveries and medical cures. A pooling of intellectual resources, so to speak.

My first thought was concern that while this group is earnestly seeking cures and diagnostic avenues, there is bound to be another group bent on using the same technology with the opposite in mind. While the ethical argument is raised, Wohlsen does not spend any ink on how real and present that threat is-information which I would have appreciated in this age of global terrorism.

A number of interesting people are introduced who are involved in various forms of research and who have a variety of world views. While some have smaller, more attainable goals in mind, such as finding a less expensive early detection test for which insurance companies might be more willing to pay. Others see the end goal as being able to engineer life itself.

Within the narrow scope of those choosing to use their kitchen sink research for what most would view as positive goals, Wohlsen's research is impressive. As I said, the flip side-those who are intent on evil-is not covered at all.
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More About the Author

I'm a senior writer at WIRED, where I cover the business of technology. I'm also the author of Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life (Current/Penguin 2011), the story of a global hacker movement seeking to do for biotech what Steve Jobs did for personal computing. Before joining WIRED, I was a reporter in the San Francisco bureau of The Associated Press.

"Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life" recounts my deep dive into the world of DIY DNA. My adventure took me from open-source software to bioterror to the quest to build new forms of life gene by gene. At least as intriguing to me as the biology was the drive of these young scientists to forge new ways of thinking about how change and discovery happen in science, and about who gets to decide the way forward.

Even after several years in the Bay Area, I had still thought of "innovation" and "entrepreneurship" as code words for "let's make lots of money." In the mouths of many, they still are. Among the biopunks, I discovered a community of idealists who believed that that entrepreneurial thinking joined with a desire for authentic innovation could be a strategy for dramatic social change.

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