Tweaking Genes In The Basement

Tweaking Genes in the Basement.

In the 1970s, before the PC era, there were computer hobbyists. A group of them formed the Homebrew Computer Club in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 to trade integrated circuits and swap tips on assembling rudimentary computers, like the Altair 8800, a rig with no inputs or outputs and memory measured in kilobytes.

Among the Club’s members were Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

As the tools of biotechnology become accessible (and affordable) to a wider public for the first time, hobbyists are recapturing that collaborative ethos and applying it to tinkering with the building blocks of life.

Eugene Thacker is a professor of literature, culture and communications at Georgia Tech and a member of the Biotech Hobbyist collective. Just as the computer hobbyists sought unconventional applications for computer circuitry, the new collective is looking for “non-prescribed uses” of biotechnology, Thacker said.

The group has published a set of informal DIY articles, mimicking the form of the newsletters and magazines of the computer hobbyists — many of which are archived online. Thacker walks readers through the steps of performing a basic computation using a DNA “computer” in his article “Personal Biocomputing” (PDF). The tools for the project include a $100 high school-science education kit and some used lab equipment.

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