Sexy: OpenPCR in GQ France (updated in English)

OpenPCR thermal cycler in GQWe’re featured in the March edition of GQ: France! What’s hot? Josh Perfetto, Russ Durrett, Joe Jackson, Eri Gentry, OpenPCR, and Tito Jankowski: “Dans L’antre Des Biohackers”. Read on for the full article. English translation below, thanks to OpenPCR Fan Max Gleeson! (he includes the translation with a warning: it’s rough at the best, completely incorrect at the worst.)



Do you know about the hackers who roam the internet and [pirate] information networks? You will love biohackers, their cousins who play with life and biology. Followers of Do It Yourself, these wild scientists [mount / rig up] their own amateur laboratories in garages, manipulating cells and DNA. (Unlike the) fantasy of Dr. Frankenstein, they aspire to free science from the yoke of the multinationals. And they promise to (revolutionize) our lives. (The Natural and Life) sciences have never been so fun.

(Text: Valentine Faure, Photos: Peter Van Agtmael / Magnum for GQ)

Mountain view, [???] of San Francisco, at the heart of Silicon Valley. At the Hackers Dojo, a vast [hangar, shed?] populated by geeks working in silence at their computers on mysterious projects, there are [a hundred] who have made the trip here this Sunday at the [call?] of the group BioCurious. There are sudents, traders, computer scientists, chemists, and one [tramp?] wearing sunglasses, united by their common passion, “Biohacking.” In their makeshift laboratories in their garages, closets, and kitchens, they manipulate living organisms as other might garden or trick out their car. To what purpose? Having fun extracting DNA from a banana, or attempting to invent the biofuel of the future. Producing a bacteria capable of making a green fluorescent yogurt, or analyzing their own genome. Creating a living organism able to absorb an oil spill, or working toward furthering cancer research. [This is?] “Do It Yourself” genetic biology, which [passes up] official laboratories to realize these feats at home.

In 2005, Robert Carlson, scientist and apostle of biohacking, predicted the emergence of amateur biology. “The [advent / coming] of garage biology is near,” he wrote. “[As] the skills and technologies develop, the synthesis and manipulation of genomes will no longer be confined to ivory towers.” ___________________

Since then, biotechnological enterprises have been heavily affected by [the crisis???], and costs have continued to drop. For a few hundred dollars, one can rig up a lab at home, finding bargain materials on eBay, tinkering with a webcam to make a microscope or using ones armpits as an incubator. And, in the current of the “Open Science” movement, which encourages applying the philosophy of free information to  science, “DNA Tinkerers” have [swarmed/spread/propagated???].

In Paris, Boston, and even in Bosnia, handfuls of wizard apprentices share protocol, ideas, and results of their experiments on online forums. Joseph Jackson recently [moved?] to Silicon Valley “because that’s where all the [weird guys/freaks] are going.” He studied political science at Harvard “thinking that politics was the best tool at our disposition for resolving problems.” After discovering the narrowness of spirit and eagerness of the people at Harvard, he instead became a kind of entrepreneur-activist-transhumanist. With Eri Gentry, the smiling queen of the biohackers and Tito Jankowski, a towering blond 24 year old originally from Hawaii, two other amateur biologists at the heart of the movement, he founded the group Bio Curious. In their newly acquired space, all three teach aspiring hackers how to construct their own labs on the cheap, or conduct their experiments at home, teaching them safety rules, in short, working to spread the [domestic practice of the "manipulation of life." Not just to train [ Sunday biologists / Weekend Warriors].

DIY Biology, for Joseph, is the breakdown of industrial and institutional barriers. Then end of the seizure of knowledge by multinationals motivated only by profit. “It is vital that [citizens/people] are able to use biotechnology. It’s a return to the [normal / way things used to be???]. Biology was always domesticated. During the Age of Enlightenment, research was conducted by rich erudite aristocrats, who could afford to purchase the necessary materials.” Thomas Edison, or Benjamin Franklin – who placed all of their inventions in the public domain– [ figure prominently] in the pantheon of biohackers as the best examples of [a Science] that is creative, participative, and humanistic. “And then the industrial revolution upset everything, in [re?]orienting the research of science toward the search for profit,” continues Joseph. “And big multinationals like Monsanto dictated the trajectories, and imposed their agenda in matters of technology and health. [Although we should be] in an era of exponential progress, we are blocked by the mechanism of monopolies, with patents of a duration of twenty years.” Today, biohackers belong to a generation [to whom nothing is forbidden by patents or copyrights????].

Pullquote: “Creating genomes will become a personal activity like painting or sculpture” – The physicist Freeman Dyson

Page 161 Caption: Tito Jankowski, one of the three creators of the group BioCurious, practices high level biology in a small apartment in San Francisco.

Page 162 Caption: At 23 years old, Russel Durrett created Genspace, his own lab, where he tries to fabricate [new/novel] antibodies. With his project of creating a new strain of yeast, he hopes to revolutionize medical research bypassing an official lab.

“Napster, Ebay, Amazon, Blogs, all of these (challenged) the concepts of creation, professionalism, and commerce that we thought were written in stone. Imagine the impact of an analogous change in science.” Yes, let us imagine it. In 2007, the [great?] physicist Freeman Dyson exposed (shared?) his views on the future of biotechnology. “Genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial as long as it remains an activity concentrated in the hands of big corporations. I see a radiant future for biotechnology when (if?) it follows the path of the information industry: in becoming small and domesticated, instead of large and centralized… Creating genomes will become a personal activity, a new form of art as creative as painting or sculpture.” So, we can possible sell (buy?) DIY kits for creating new species of roses, of parrots, of snakes and of dogs. And in schools, children will be able to make baby dinosaurs rather than observing them in books.

The myth of the Garage Revolution
This vision could seem chimerical in 2011 but Dyson [predicts] “the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives over the next fifty years, [just as] computer have dominated our lives for the last fifty.” In Wwaiting to become the Steve Jobs of tomorrow, Joe brought his LAVA-AMP with him, a “low cost DNA amplifier”, which at first glance looks like a toy. More rapid, less expensive, consuming less energy, his machine makes DNA tests possible anywhere, and could be used to improve the screening of illnesses (H1N1, bird flu). For today, the object can certainly make part of the perfect panoply of [a biohacker]. “This could become an emblematic object, in the manner of the iPod, and in fifteen years we’ll say “Oh yeah, I remember that thing!”

The emergence of these new tools will sooner or later pose the crucial question of their commercialization. In 2011, we can still ask whether a mass market exists for these personal DNA amplifiers, but biohackers already have the response. An analogy with the [personal computer] revolution feeds their dreams of grandeur: after all, they ague, in the 1970s, when computers were the size of a (????), we asked with skepticism who could ever need a computer at home. Secondly, it is [now well established] that many great inventors started out as hackers, and that the greatest technological enterprises were born in garages– Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Google, (?????) Netscape Navigator. In reality, the vast majority of “garage entrepreneurs” benefited from their experiences in conventional enterprises, but the myth of the “enterprise born in a garage is part of the American dream: the triumph of talent and effort, of [sole genius against all?]. The garage or the lab improvised in a bathroom, it’s there where a bold future is invented, away from conventions and institutions.

Last February, Wired Magazine [published an article titled?] “The New Industrial Revolution”. Its founder Chris Anderson announced the the [expansion?] of manufacturing production done at home – of cars, bikes, t-shirts, mugs, or jewelry, [making a contribution of know-how????] across the planet. “Upheavals happen when industries democratize, when they are torn from the monopoly of enterprises, of government, or other institutions, and they are transferred to all the world. The internet democratized publishing, multimedia, communications, provoking an enormous enlargment in [both the public and players in this digital world?].” DIY biology sits at the crossroads of all these forces in action: crowdsourcing, domestication, the end of professionalism, participative production. And the development of synthetic biology. If the computer revolution [was built using?] elementary particocles called “bits”, the next has already begun using what amateur biologists call “biobricks,” portions of DNA of standardized behavior, that allow us to [think of] new creatures that are purely abstract, in the same way an engineer imagines a machine composed of different pieces. By combining genetic circuits, like Legos, synthetic biology can create forms of life that are new, genetic machines with a determined function.

Organized each year by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the iGEM contest (for “International genetically engineered machines competition”) gathers projects from students around the world using biobricks. This competition has become the institutional rendez-vous of biohackers. On this cold Saturday in November, many have had to travel to Boston: one hundred and forty teams this year, versus five the first year in 2004. There is an [academic?] atmosphere in the lobby: grouped before the posters summarizing their projects, these young scientists revise their presentation, [encouraged?] and trying to indentify their most dangerous adversaries. Among them, Russell Durret, who was 19 when he first [heard about?] iGEM: “the coolest thing in the world.” The next day he was on a bus to Boston to attend the event. The day after that, he decided to devote his life to synthetic biology. This year, he is participating for the first time in the contest, under the banner of New York University. Very confident in his chances, here he is at age 23 become a “molecular biologist”. “Most people think that in order to practice science, you need a degree, a masters, a doctorate, and a post-doctorate… I took a shortcut: I got my degree, and I created my own lab.” In the seventh story of a building in Brooklyn, you have to step over buckets collecting rain water leaking from the ceiling to access Genspace, his “lab.” The materials were recovered from a laboratory that went bankrupt. On a shelf, the book “Biology for Dummies.” On his computer screens, multicolored forms [of madness] incomprehensible to a philistine. At the moment, Russell is working on a project that he said could “revolutionize research in antibodies.”  He makes a strain of yeast that imitates the human immune system, and can enable a discovery of a [new antibody?]. Right now, performing the operation takes a month, and costs about $700. “With this system, it takes less than a week, and costs virtually nothing,” ensures Russell.

The scientific community is rather [cautious about?] the emergence of biohackers. A researcher at Boston University summarizes the general opinion in these terms: “I’m not afraid of these people, but they will mess up.”  “Scientists aren’t afraid because they think that DIY biology is just a jellyfish in tupperware,” responds Russell. “They don’t realize that people are [already gathering], professionalizing…” It’s hard to say exactly how many there are today. “Some want us to talk about them, ” explains Robert Carlson, “but others don’t want [advertising?]. For some years, our government has been completely paranoid and has been [shown agression?] toward the people who practice biology from home, even in a legal manner. It’s what I expected: in cases of severe repression, people will not stop, they will hide away. And that’s exactly what has happened.

[The biohacker figure in?] Dr Frankenstein, isolated creator of living organisms he has no control over, [he is real?], [enough to feed the fantasies?]. My neighbor [creating] an ebola virus in his kitchen? “It’s not very probably, because it’s very complicated to do. It’s very difficult to do something harmful. But it’s also difficult to do something helpful.” says agent Ed You, FBI, charged with monitoring the development of the practicing of synthetic biology. He works hand in hand with little groups of DIY biologists. “We realize it’s an extremely promising field,” he explains, “but there is a large spectrum of risks. We just want to make sure that people understand the laws, and that they themselves are being safe. If something happens, the legal response could inhibit the development of medicine, of biodefense countermeasures, this is not desirable.” At the Mountain View Hackers Dojo, when [discussing/addressing?] issues? related to the safety of the excercise of amateur manipulation of life, one man intervenes: “That’s exactly as if we had told the first man that invented fire: [No, are you crazy? Are you going to teach that to your children, to the whole world around you?].” Nodding heads of approval around the room. [In other words], while we’re with the biohackers, we have the feeling of being a the dawn of a very, very big revolution.


Harvard University, MIT, and the book Biology for Dummies

Apple, Facebook, Napster, and all enterprises founded in a garage by a [smart guy?] become millionaire

Punk culture and its emulators, Do It Yourself, hackers and the “Open Science” movement


Chris Anderson, founder of Wired, Robert Carlson, scientist and apostle of biohacking, the physicist Freeman Dyson, and Benjamin Franklin, writer, physicist and american diplomat of the 18th century

The iGEM contest in Boston, international competition of synthetic biology that was held in November 2010.

The biobrick, basic element for constructing new biological systems, and materials acquired on eBay and customized.

The biotech and pharmacological industries, academic research institutions.

4 thoughts on “Sexy: OpenPCR in GQ France (updated in English)

  1. Pingback: DNA is now DIY: OpenPCR ships worldwide | OpenPCR - Open source, hackable PCR machine

  2. Pingback: Biohaking y OpenPCR | Biogenia

Comments are closed.