Originally published in San Francisco Bay Guardian, Aug 8 2001.


Illustration by Jeremy Russell





Biopunk

By Annalee Newitz

Cyberpunk 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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