Biopunk – Michael Pyne

I like biology. I like it a lot. So when people ask me what field I am in, I usually respond by stating, “Biology!” But what does this tell them? Is this response too vague? Of course it is! And these days it is as ambiguous as ever before. What I have done is merely scratched the surface. An analogy would be showing someone a globe when they ask for directions to your house. The point is this: biology is expanding at an unprecedented rate and is blurring the lines that used to separate distinct fields. This has led to the birth and development of numerous diverse fields still in their infancy, including biotechnology and genetic engineering, biomaterials, bioinformatics, genomics and proteomics (and other omics), systems biology, synthetic biology, metabolic engineering and so on. It seems that nowadays anyone can bring a novel field into being simply by tacking the bio prefix onto any preexisting field. We’ve yet to hear about biovisual and bioperforming arts, biophilosophy (perhaps bioethics?), bioreligion (perhaps evolution?) or biolanguages but I suspect they are not far away. This bio trend likely has origins in the marriage of biology with both chemistry and physics, which occurred sometime in the 19th century. As a result, many of us are quite familiar with the disciplines of biochemistry and biophysics. Biotechnology (and genetic engineering), on the other hand, has thus far become known, at least to the general public, as a sinister sci-fi field (“Franken”-field) that should probably be left untapped until we can better understand the consequences of tinkering with nature.

To me, biology has always been lagging behind chemistry and physics. We have a very good understanding of atoms, molecules and forces, yet we have only begun to decipher the layers of complexity that make up even the simplest single-celled living organism, let alone the human brain and cancer, for example. Even viruses, essentially genetic material wrapped in protein (they’re not even living!), are able to outcompete our lackluster attempts at prevention, vaccination and treatment (think of the common cold, HIV, HPV, hepatitis, SARS, Ebola, avian flu and H1N1). The emerging line of thinking seems to be that, as humans we simply are not capable of fully understanding the intricacies and complexities that make up a living organism. We do not possess the brain power to compute or design the workings of a living organism. Enter the computer and Digital Age.

With the advent of petrochemistry and the global chemical industry, the 20th century is largely regarded as the Chemical Century. Now in the 2000s, however, it is time for chemistry to pass on the reigns, albeit extremely gradually, to biology. We are currently at the dawn of a worldwide biorevolution, one well-documented in the unsettlingly-titled 2011 book “Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life.” The book’s author, Marcus Wohlsen, equates the current desire and need for open sourcing of biological information to the open source software revolution of the 1970s. Wohlsen envisages a world in the near future where eager DIY bionerds have access to all the necessary equipment, know-how and genetic information (i.e. DNA and gene sequences) to perform exciting genetic engineering experiments in the comfort of their own garages. In essence, biotech and genetic engineering experiments will no longer be performed solely in well-funded academic institutions and multibillion dollar biotech companies. Just as companies such as Apple, RIM, Google and Facebook emerged from basements, dorm rooms and coffee shops in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Wohlsen believes many of the future groundbreaking biological discoveries will grow out of kitchens, garages and abandoned buildings turned DIY laboratories.

Although I may have lost track, my rambling does have implications to teaching biology and all of its distinct fields, subfields and yet-to-be fields. Although biology is evolving at an unprecedented rate and is amalgamating with numerous other areas of science and engineering, it is almost impossible for our curricula to keep pace. With my undergraduate training in Biochemistry and Biotechnology only three years behind me, I feel that my research field is demanding I know more about coding, mathematics and bioinformatics than my undergraduate degree allowed. Since we now have a better understanding of metabolic reactions and fundamental cellular processes, biology is on the move toward life on a larger scale – I mentioned the rise of systems biology, the interdisciplinary study of complex biological interactions and their implications in biological systems, earlier in this post. However, many university biology programs are lacking sufficient training in omics, bioinformatics and synthetic and systems biology – the very fields that are most likely to define and shape the 21st century. But with the pace at which modern biology is changing, can we really blame our curricula for being a few steps behind? Perhaps a wake-up call will be in store in the coming years when undergraduates begin showing up for class with their own personal genomes, all 3.4 billion nucleotide “letters” that make up a person’s unique 25,000-30,000 genes, arranged nicely on an App on their iPhone. Or perhaps it is already happening around the world with a small army of resourceful Biopunks preaching their DIY gospel and putting on demonstrations by isolating the genomic DNA from strawberries using nothing more than water, rubbing alcohol, table salt, shampoo and a coffee filter – all items readily available in any common household. All I can say is that it’s a great time to be a biology student!


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