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Can Citizen Scientists Make Biotech More Efficient? Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life

Marcus Wohlsen's book, Biopunk, looks into the DIY science on kitchen counters that could change the way we think about biotechnology.


The vaccine for swine flu—better known as the H1N1 virus—relies on a rather ineffecient process. It involves raising chicken eggs in a clandestine network of farms—a so-called "feathered Manhattan Project"—then infecting the eggs and incubating them. The chicken and the eggs both get destroyed. What if amateurs had a hand in creating a better biotechnology?

In Marcus Wohlsen's new book, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, he explores the biohackers bringing science from the lab bench table to dining room tables. Some of the tinkerers want to build better cancer drugs or melamine detectors out of jellyfish and yogurt. In an excerpt published on NPR, Mackenzie Cowell, of DIYbio, tells Wohlsen:

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Can the "Flavor Tripping" Berry Help Solve the Hunger Problem?

Chef Homaro Cantu thinks that the berry could revolutionize the way we feed the world by making grasses and other wild bitter plants palatable.



In 1850, the British Army Medical Department posted Dr. William F. Daniell, a surgeon, to Africa's Gold Coast. Daniell treated soldiers with Western medicines, but he also looked into native remedies, including cola nuts (which he later discovered had intense pharmacological effects) and a "Miraculous berry of Western Africa" he called Synsepalum dulcificum.

Most of us are familiar with the kola nut, but the miracle berry has only recently been making appearances—first in scientific literature and then in stories about recreational "flavor-tripping" parties. Because the fruit contains a glycoprotein called miraculin, it masks some of our sour taste bud receptors and causes the brain to misinterpret some foods as sweet. (But much like stevia, another super-sweet sugar alternative, the Food and Drug Administration denied its use as a food additive in the 1970s.)

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Drinkable Bagels and Pea Fat: Cooking with Microsoft's Former Chief Technology Officer

Sampling recipes from Nathan Myrhvold's $500 cookbook—made in his own ridiculously high-tech R&D kitchen.

We've written about the stunning visuals and high-tech recipes in former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myrhvold's new cookbook, Modernist Cuisine, before. But at $500 a copy, we haven't had the chance to take it into the GOOD kitchen and give it a test drive.

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Video: Dan Barber Explains Sheep Sonograms, Biochar, and Cooking With Compost Video: Blue Hill Chef Dan Barber's Science and Cooking Public Lecture at Harvard

Next up for farm-to-table cooking? Dan Barber explains the pursuit of better flavor through Old World farm technologies and modern science.


The manicured grounds of Stone Barns boast flocks of handsome turkeys, chickens, and sheep. Heritage-breed pigs root around in the hardwood forest near steaming compost piles. At Blue Hill restaurant, the menu revolves around the idea of a farmer’s feast, where cooks plan and prepare each night's dinner around the day’s harvest. And the fabled pedigrees extend to the place itself. The Rockefellers set up the barns in the 1890s.

So it’s probably not the first place you’d think of if you were looking into how science and technology are revolutionizing what we eat, but it's where chef Dan Barber has been pioneering some unusual techniques, ones that set him apart from the 13 other chefs who have speaking in front of Harvard’s star-studded Science & Cooking Public Lectures.

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