Biopunks Cry, "Free Our Genetic Data!"

Cyberpunk is passe. The Internet boom was a joke. Steve Jobs is a dink, Bill Gates is a fascist, and Carly Fiorina has lost the Midas touch. 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 and biotech wizards 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, youíll recall, 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. The public human genome sequence exists in rough draft form, and many scientists believe that this HGP public information may be far more accurate than Celera's -- partly due to the number of people working on it, and partly due to the sequencing technique that the public consortium is using. As you might have guessed, HGP public data is for biopunks -- you too can browse your genome for free.

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 ten cents to the boys who brought you the Happy Meal. That would suck, wouldn't it?

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. How fucked is that?

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 beautifully 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. When I asked Nelkin her opinion about the ethics of patenting genes, she pulled a brainiac's tantrum. "I can't answer such a general question!" she raged. "Why don't you just go out and read the dozens of articles on this issue in scientific journals?" Ah, the wrath of a biopunk. Is there anything more awesome?

Although some might disagree with me, I think the biopunk movement is pro-clone. Anything to change the way humans breed is a Good Thing. It gets us out of the mommy-daddy-baby continuum.

Biopunk fiction writers like Octavia Butler (check out her amazing Xenogenesis Trilogy) play with the idea of genetic engineering as a revolutionary practice. Biopunk even has an artistic branch, inspired by Chicago artist Eduardo Kac (see 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 fluoresence in jellyfish. Now she's a normal floppy bunny who glows bright green if you expose her to fluorescent light. Weird science almost always inspires weird art. That's the lesson of the artistic biopunks.

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 an effort to help Alba live a normal bunny's life in his Chicago home with his family. 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 is a surly media nerd who is pro-clone. Find out the dirt at

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