The Biopunk Reader


Human+ Exhibit in Dublin Explores the Future(s) of Humanity

Do biopunk or cyberpunk catch your fancy? If you live near Dublin, Ireland, you're in for a treat. The Science Gallery at Trinity College is hosting Human+ The Future of Our Species, a thought-provoking (and at times downright chilling) exhibit exploring future visions of humanity. It mixes art, speculation, and cutting edge science. You will find curiosities like an interactive virtual head, a statue of Gluttony (seriously, the thing looks like it walked out of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman), and bioart like the "Edunia," a petunia sporting the DNA of Eduardo Kac, the artist.

Don't live near Dublin? No worries. You're still in for a treat, because you can now explore highlights from the exhibits on-line.

"Song of the Machine" is my favorite exhibit, although calling a "favorite" is hard, because all of the exhibits are so intriguing. But "Song"--which is about augmenting vision--holds a special personal significance for me, since I have limited sight in one of my eyes. Superflux, which is a London-based team of scientists, designers, and ethicists, is designing a unique technology for the visually impaired that couples genetic manipulation with an external optical prosthetic. The idea is to prep the nerve cells to receive input from an external device. I'm getting that this technology would be applicable to the military and to the general public, as well as those with impaired vision, because augmented individuals would be able to see into the UV and infrared ranges. My only question: Why did the team use a "song" analogy...for a visual technology?

Here is possibly the coolest bio/cyber hybrid at Human+, "Aphasia Mechanica":

And the most bone-chilling exhibit, "Euthenasia Coaster." Yes, a euthenasia machine in the form of a roller-coaster. Spiral off into euphoria, unconsciousness, and the uknown. What a way to go.

(Did the man actually say "dealing with overpopulation"? ::shivers::)

Human+ runs until June 24, 2011.



Top Universities Offer Free On-line Courses

I realize the title sounds a bit spammy. Apologies for that. But it's true: Some of the premiere universities in the United States (and abroad?) are offering coursework for free. You won't get a grade or a degree, but you'll get an education! And you don't have to pay!

I was thinking about brushing up on the sciences and ethics. Mostly, you know, so I can write more believable biopunk. Here are a few that caught my attention:

Foundations of American Cyberculture (Berkeley). Since biopunk is often packaged together with cyberpunk, I thought this was relevant. And it looks interesting. (Cyberpunk was my first love, for anyone who's questioned my allegiances. ^_~)

Medical Ethics (Notre Dame).

The Nature of Mind (Berkeley).

Animal Behavior (Berkeley and MIT).

Behavioral Endocrinology (Johns Hopkins).

Biochemistry (Carnegie Mellon).

Bioscience in the 21st Century (Lehigh).

Brain Structure and Its Origins (MIT).

Darwin's Legacy (Stanford).

Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior (Yale).

Frontiers in Biomedical Engineering (Yale).

General Biology 1 (John Hopkins and Berkeley).

General Biology 2 (Berkeley).

Molecular and Cell Biology (Berkeley).

General Human Anatomy (Berkeley).

Genetic Engineering in Medicine, Agriculture, and Law (UCLA).

Genetics (UCLA and Berkeley).

Genomes and Diversity (New York University).

Global Problems of Population Growth (Yale).

Human Behavioral Biology (Stanford).

Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering (Stanford).

Straight Talk About Stem Cells (Stanford).

The Future of Human Health (Stanford).

Full list of all free courses is here. Happy studies!



Domesticating the Wild, Printing Body Parts


I was standing in line at the Barnes & Noble checkout counter last night (buying comic books, if you must know), when my eyes rested on a copy of the latest National Geographic. The huge picture of a red fox stared back at me. The headline read, "Designing the Perfect Pet: Can a Fox Become Man's Best Friend?"

I snatched the issue up. It just so happens that genetically-engineered pet foxes make a cameo in my latest short story, "How to Hack Your Dragon," which is being released on the 22nd in Growing Dread: Biopunk Visions. They were just something I'd made up--or thought I had. But here they were--foxes that were being bred by Russian scientists for domestication, in a sped-up process meant to recreate the transformation of wolves into dogs. So, the scientists weren't using genetic engineering to make wild foxes into pet foxes ("lapfoxes" I call them in my story, to allude to the fact that they sit on human laps), but they are using these foxes (along with aggressively-bred counterparts) to explore the genes that control domestication. It's the sort of experiment that could lead to something like lapfoxes actually happening in the future.

Interesting stuff, especially considering that--although the scientists are breeding only for behavioral traits of domestication--the animals have spontaneously begun to display the physical traits of domestication, too--traits like floppy ears and spotted coats. These physical characteristics are somewhat universal to all domesticated animals, be they cows, dogs, or fish. (All right, so fish can't have floppy ears--but they can have spots.)

Excitedly, I mentioned the experiment to my beau. His eyes widened. "That's horrible!" he said.

I was taken aback. Who wouldn't want a cute, cuddly fox as a pet? It's not like we'd be messing with the wild population. However, that might be an issue, if domesticated foxes mingled with wild natives. But that hasn't been a concern with dogs and wolves or coyotes...right?

"No," he said. "Think of the implications. If they can domesticate foxes...they could try to domesticate us."

"Posh!" I said. "We are the standard to which other creatures are domesticated. We can't be domesticated, because we are the model of domestication."

Actually, I didn't say "posh," and I couldn't find the right words to say what I meant, so what I said was more like, "What? They can't domesticate us! We--domesticated--already. Um. I have an argument, but I can't find the words. (mumbling). Right. (turns back to WoW)"

I finished reading the article before bed, so it was much later when I arrived at the place where the article mentioned us humans. As it turns out, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is now funding the fox project because of its implications for human behavior. They believe that the domestication of foxes might give us a clue into how we became "domesticated"...and how our genes code our social behavior.


Boyfriend was right.

My first thought: Might those genes be rewritten in those of us who aren't quite as "domesticated" as we should be?

"Yeah," said my friend, Bender. "We'll be rewriting our own software in the future. We'll be able to do whatever we want to ourselves."

Actually, what he might have said was, "They will be able to do whatever they want to us."

But I can't recall his exact words.

Speaking of rewriting ourselves...we may also be able to rebuild ourselves quite soon. Just before the article about the foxes was a piece called "Miracle Grow." On the page next to the title was an ear in a petri dish. Just an ear. The texture of the thing was reminiscent of wax or styrafoam, in a very light pink color. Its caption read, "The synthetic scaffold of an ear sits bathed in cartilage-producing cells, part of an effort to grow new ears for wounded soldiers."

Funny. Just last week, Bender sent me three articles about scientists at the Wake Forest University Institute of Regenerative Medicine who are discovering new ways to build custom replacement organs. One method involved "printing" tissue into the shape of organs, much similar to 3D printing technology that is used for things like Figure Prints. In fact, I had been planning to write my very next post--this one--about "printed" organs, several days before I landed on the National Geographic article.

Besides the printing technique, National Geographic explains that scientists are fabricating organs by using cartilaginous scaffolds and then growing tissue cells atop it.

I am reminded of "Repo: The Genetic Opera" and "Repo Men." Both good, macabre movies (Repo Men is also a book) about organ replacement corporations who hire repo men to bloodily confiscate products that have not been paid for.

Tinkering with domestication genes, and growing replacements for body parts... What do you think are the implications?



A Phone With Personality

Chances are, you've heard plenty already about the Android phone and it's operating system, but have you heard of an Elfroid? Although I'm not entirely certain what sort of relevance this really has to well, anything, but it amused me.

The Elfroid is a phone currently being developed in Japan to resemble a tiny human being. The phone wiggles throughout the duration of your conversation, and speaks to you in the voice of whoever is on the other line. When you have an incoming call, the device tickles you, and is also built with a coating designed to mimic the feel of real human skin. Those Japanese.

It sort of reminds of a homunculus.

There's more on the Elfroid at and


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A Mammoth Proposal

About a month ago, my friend Bender sent me a very interesting article: "Mammoth 'could be reborn in four years'."

Four years. Wow.

Of course, we've heard about this kind of thing in fiction before--prehistoric cloning a la Jurassic Park. But that was dinosaurs, and it's not every day that scientists discover dinosaur soft tissue, the fleshy stuff that can contain DNA. These are mammoths we're talking about, whose bodies are found frozen--hair and skin still attached. We're talking about the real possibility of resurrecting our first living, breathing dead-for-thousands-of-years species.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I'm enjoying Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, and a single sentence stands out to me:

Alek recalled seeing photos of a mammothine--a huge, shaggy sort of Siberian elephant, the first extinct creature the Darwininsts had brought back.

I thought, Sounds like Mr. Westerfeld might be right on target. A hundred years early, but right on target.



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Glimpses Into Our Biopunk Future

I recently received a massive amount of intelligence from my good friend, Bender. He's got a window to the future in his mud room (kind of a long story, something involving the room's hidden dog house entrance, his father's fax machine, and a paradox in the space-time continuum), and occasionally he's able to dial through for glimpses of what-may-come-to-be. Predictions can be pretty dodgy--the window seems to flicker between several different futures. He's reported one involving the Singularity, one that looks an awful lot like cyberpunk, and several varieties of dystopia.

I told him about my biopunk blogging project and asked if he's had any glimpses of future biotech. Lucky me--he caught a look at a very biopunk future several days later! Here's what he found:

In the future, computers are built of bacteria, yeast, and even our own cells. The cells act like logic gates and can be programmed for any number of activities, including patrolling our bodies for diseases--and treating them. Cancer? A thing of the past. And most medications have been rendered obsolete. Goodbye to doctor visits as we know them.

DIY science and biohacking are common. Many families keep a home lab, where they make their own observations and perform self modifications. Moms no longer teach their little girls how to apply makeup; they design them amethyst-colored eyes and perfect noses, instead.

Synthetic biology has changed the fields of medicine and agriculture--and have unintended consequences on the ecosystem, despite good intentions. Thankfully, the synthlife seems to do as much good as bad--because of microbes that eat waste sludge and scrub smog from the skies, pollution is under control.

With the development of biomimetic transistors, humans are developing into part-machine organic cyborgs. Like I said, "Goodbye to doctor visits as we know them." A physician examination is almost completely computerized; just jack into the outlet and let your body tell the medic system how you're doing. In fact, most people can do this from home--forget office visits with long waits.

That's it for now, but Bender's getting more notes to me every day. As long as this window remains stable (he's been able to keep it open for several days now), he'll be sharing more tidbits.


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