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

18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1617230028 ISBN-10: 1617230022 Edition: 1st

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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

See all Editorial Reviews

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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: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,050,600 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Customer Reviews

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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Leonardo on October 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book was well written and contains some fascinating anecdotes from the field. The DIY (Do-it-yourself) bio revolution shouldn't be confused with the biotech work that is going on in laboratories. Wholsen draws back the curtain on a field that is still in its infancy, where people without a biology background are tinkering with biology and come up with some cool creations. Many people liken being involved in hacking biology to hacking primitive computers in the '70s garage scene, which is where the likes of Steve Jobs and Hewlett Packard got their starts. This book will open up your world and show you that, even without a biology background, you can get involved in the infancy of this incredible revolution.
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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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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Doxycycline on October 18, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a well-written, well-researched, and thoughtful book that's a pleasure to read. The focus of the book, however, is on the people who are working on DIY biology (mostly work on genetics and genetic modification) and what attracted them to work on this problem and what they're working on. There's also quite a bit of consideration on what the downstream implications (both positive and negative) would be of this movement.

I was hoping for more description of the nuts and bolts details of how people are actually doing the work but this was not the focus of the book. I did glean a few web resources that were quite useful but overall the book focuses on the people and the movement and not actually on how to do DIY biology.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By SFWriter on May 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is wonderfully written; Wohlsen has very natural way of raising provocative ideas about the implications of genetic manipulation without sounding like a science textbook. I'm not an expert on biology or genetic engineering, so I was initially worried about the accessibility of the material for me, but his profiles of prominent biohackers are entertaining and keep a fast pace, and his explanations of complex topics achieve the difficult task of being succinct and nuanced at the same time. I found this book to be a very accessible introduction to a very complicated topic, and I especially liked that Wohlsen was able to get inside the heads of these biohackers while maintaining enough journalistic distance to also convey the criticism of their work when appropriate. As a novice in this area, that kind of perspective is very helpful in framing my thinking about this issue. I got a lot of new ideas from this book and I highly recommend it.
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