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Biopunk

By Annalee Newitz

C yberpunk is passé. The Internet boom was a joke. Steve Jobs is a dink and Bill Gates is a fascist. The days of Mondo 2000 are long over. What new techno-arts revolution will come next? Which new batch of writers and mad scientists will inspire us in the 2000s?

The answer has already arrived: It's the biopunk revolution.

Biopunks are the visionaries whose imaginations were set on fire by the knowledge that we had finally sequenced the human genome last year. Biopunks get off on creative genetic engineering, RNA research, cloning and protein synthesis. Biopunks hack genomic data, lining up human genomes next to mouse genomes to find out what the two species have in common and what they don't (surprise: they have way more in common than you could possibly ever imagine).

Unlike the biotech corporate drones at places like Maryland-based biotech firm Celera, biopunks believe in the liberation of genetic data. Celera owns a sequence of the entire human genome. If you want to use their data for research, you have to pay for it out the yin-yang. The Human Genome Project (HGP) public consortium, on the other hand, makes all its data available to anyone who wants it. As you might have guessed, HGP public data is for biopunks--you can browse your genome for free at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genome/guide/human/.

Selling genomic data for commercial use is for reactionaries. And yet the gene and protein patenting biz has gone through the roof. Discovering a gene or a protein means you can patent it, which means you can own it. Biopunks urge us to think about just how creepy that is. What if a company could own other parts of our bodies the way they can own our genes? Say McDonalds patented the arm, and whenever you used your own arm, you had to pay 10 cents to the boys who brought you the Happy Meal.

Gene patents lead to scenarios like my arm example, only writ small. In the not-so-distant future, you'll have to pay cash to some company in order to get information on how one of your genes will interact with a specific kind of medicine. Even better, if a doctor discovers that one of your genes synthesizes a unique and nifty protein, she can patent your own personal protein and sell it.

The biopunk movement has spawned its own passionate philosophers, lawyers and intellectuals who want to rip holes in the ridiculous patent laws that allow McBioCorp to own the gene for making eyes, growing tumors, or whatever. People like UC-Santa Cruz's Donna Haraway and MIT's Evelyn Fox Keller write about the ways that ideology can affect the progress of pure science. I will adore Keller forever for her cogent analysis of the sexist assumptions underlying the cloning controversy in The Century of the Gene (Harvard). And then there are the bratty geniuses of the biopunk world, like Dorothy Nelkin, co-author of Body Bazaar (Crown), a critique of how commerce influences biotech.

Biopunk fiction writers like Octavia Butler play with the idea of genetic engineering as a revolutionary practice. Biopunk even has an artistic branch, inspired by Chicago artist Eduardo Kac (see www.ekac.org), whose "transgenic bunny" inspired massive global controversy last year. When Alba, the bunny in question, was just a little zygote, French geneticists injected her with the jellyfish gene responsible for creating fluorescence in jellyfish. Now she's a normal floppy bunny who glows bright green if you expose her to fluorescent light.

Ironically, protesters who think Kac's project is disturbing have lobbied to keep Alba in the French lab where she was engineered. Kac is currently organizing to help Alba live a normal bunny's life in his Chicago home. "Free Alba!" is his rallying cry.

"Free our genetic data!" is the rallying cry of the biopunk. Let us do what we want with our own biology.


Annalee Newitz (biopunk@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who is pro-clone.

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From the August 9-15, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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