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Mad Science: An Interview (AND GIVEAWAY!) with Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson

kyle kurpinskiKyle Kurpinski holds a Ph.D. in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley where he studied stem cell science and the effects of beer on thesis writing. Kyle currently works for a biotech company in the San Francisco Bay Area and spends the majority of his free time thinking about how his projects could be incorporated into the plot of a sci-fi action movie, hopefully starring Bruce Willis.

terry d johnsonTerry D. Johnson was born in the Midwest and kept moving until he found someplace warm. He is currently a lecturer in the bioengineering department at UC Berkeley. Terry used to write io9.com’s “Ask a Biogeek” column.


How to Defeat Your Own CloneGFTW: What was the genesis for the book How to Defeat Your Own Clone?

Terry D. Johnson: Kyle came to me with an idea for the book and as soon as I heard the title, I was helpless to resist.

Kyle Kurpinski: Yeah, it was basically a catchy title that turned into book, but there’s more to it than that. We drew the inspiration for Clone from a slew of parody survival books like The Zombie Survial Guide, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, and The Worst Case Scenario Handbook. These are humorous, easy-to-read books that mix somewhat-improbable situations and pop-culture zaniness with varying degrees of factual information (zombies tend to be on the lower end of that scale). Basically, they’re fun, but they can also teach you a thing or two along the way if you’re paying attention. After reading these books, I felt pretty prepared to escape from the Matrix or fend off a horde of undead, but what about clones? No one was instructing the world about what to do when science gives us mutant sharks, bieonhanced super-assassins, or even our own lab-created dopplegangers. Being two bioengineers who watch a lot of crappy sci-fi, Terry and I saw a need and we filled it.

GFTW: What advantages were there to working collaboratively on this book?

TDJ: When you get stuck, it’s ok to pass the buck – you can point to something that you wrote and say to your cowriter, “Make this funny.”

KK: Also, when you sign a contract that commits you to something like 50,000 words, being responsible for only half of them is a nice plus.

GFTW: Your book is written with minimal jargon and a great deal of humor in order to be approachable to the average reader. Why is it important for the average person (i.e. non-scientist) to learn about genetics and cloning?

TDJ: Mostly because the average person votes and buys things. People ought to know when a politician is trying to scare a vote out of them, or what a company can do – and can’t do – with biotechnology. I could go on about how the subject is inherently fascinating (it is, to me), but it’s half a century after the discovery of DNA and today I can spend a few hundred bucks and have personalized genetic testing done by mail. Biotechnology is going to be a big part of living in this century.

KK: I’d go even further and say that this stuff is important because the average person has a body. This isn’t just about learning a few fun facts that you can spew at the next office party; this is about understanding technologies that will (and in some cases already do) affect you on a very, very personal level. If, for example, an iPhone is nothing more to you than a magic box filled with YouTube videos and the disembodied voices of your closest friends, well, whatever – your technological ignorance is bliss. But when you start tinkering around with the genetic code that holds your body together, ignorance is far from bliss. Sure, I want a bioengineered exoskeleton and a Christopher Walken clone, but I’d certainly want to know what I was getting into first. Wouldn’t you?

GFTW: You point out in your book where movie producers get it wrong on cloning and genetics, but are their examples of Hollywood movies or TV that get it right? What are they and how do they get it right?

KK: Gattaca is the one film that I always recommend when someone asks this question. It’s one of the most plausible depictions of potential biotech that I have ever seen from Hollywood, and the reason it works so well is that it focuses on technologies which are more near-future. For example, DNA fingerprinting is already commonplace in law enforcement. Now imagine if the technology was miniaturized, made portable, and installed everywhere. You constantly leave little traces of yourself wherever you go. As technology advances, those traces are only going to get easier to find and identify. Even within the last 13 years since that movie was made, we’ve had increasing concern over the privacy and discrimination issues with genetic screening, and with good reason. This is probably the one film where I can say to people, “Yes, that could actually happen. And sooner than you might think.” There’s other good examples too. The Boys From Brazil, for instance, portrays clones more like they’d actually be if you could make one today: child counterparts of the original person.

Unfortunately, films that get biotech right don’t tend to be all that popular, usually because they’re either poorly written or just not all that entertaining. Some people have suggested to me that the problem with using real science in Hollywood is that real science isn’t as flashy as fake science, but I don’t believe that to be true. In fact, I think real science is often much more interesting and surprising than fake science. The real issue is that the fake stuff requires much less effort to pull off – anyone can make a up a plot about cloning if the real laws of cloning don’t actually apply. I think that good pop-science is hard to come by because it’s hard to write. However, it’s often worth the effort.

GFTW: Based on the recent news about the “creation of the synthetic cell”, would you modify or edit your commentary in the book?

TDJ: Kyle and I are constantly seeing things in scientific journals and in the news that we would add to the book if we were still writing it. We did discuss the design of that very cell in HTDYOC, though while we were writing the book the actual bacterium hadn’t been constructed yet. If it had I think I’d have expanded upon what the synthetic cell means for synthetic biology – this work is really the first step towards thinking past “let’s dump some new DNA into a handy strain of bacteria”. That approach has allowed us to do a lot of interesting work, but it’s not always easy getting the new DNA and the existing bacteria to play nice together. Designing the bacteria from the ground up has a lot of potential.

GFTW: Is it true that companies can or are trying to trademark specific genes? If successful, what would this mean for science and for the man or woman on the street?

TDJ: Gene patenting is quite widespread, though what that patent actually means is a work in progress. Recently a patent on two genes – BRCA1 and BRCA2 – was struck down by a company that sold a test to search for mutations in those genes linked to breast cancer. There are many relatively uncontroversial patents for genes that produce therapeutic or industrial proteins, however. The only thing I’m certain of when it comes to gene patents is that a lot of lawyers will be paid a boatload of money to sort it all out.

KK: Funny thing is, the lawyers who try these cases could potentially possess the genes in question. I’m often boggled by the outcomes of high-profile court cases, but if there’s a lawyer out there who would willingly fight to have his client own a naturally-occurring piece of himself, well, I think we’re all in a lot of trouble.

GFTW: Both of you have worked in scientific fields professionally. What have been some of your greatest success and/or failures in your respective fields (that you are free to talk about)?

KK: So far my successes have been relatively modest. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of wonderful collaborators on some very interesting projects, and if nothing else, my findings are out there in the public domain. Honestly though, I think my biggest success was just to get that PhD without completely flipping out. My biggest failure has definitely been my inability to find a singular passion within my field. In the end, it might be industry, it might be teaching, it might be writing. I’m really not sure yet. Thankfully, I have a long time left to work that out.

TDJ: I’m primarily a teacher, so my greatest professional failure has probably been a decade-long inability to escape academia and get a real job. On the upside, when I joined the bioengineering department it was quite new, so I’ve been fortunate enough to be a small part of its development in that time.

GFTW: For an average reader interested in learning more about genetics, or cloning specifically, what works other than yours would you recommend?

TDJ: Carl Zimmer and Steven Pinker would be good places to start to learn a little more about genetics.

KK: To be completely honest, I’ve never read anything specifically regarding cloning that I can wholeheartedly recommend to the layperson. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t necessarily read it yet. However, Richard Dawkins is an excellent resource for anyone interested in genetics and evolutionary biology. If you want to understand how biology (and really, life in general) works, this is the place to start.

GFTW: Of all the clones a person might face, which would be the hardest to beat? The easiest?

TDJ: If you meet my clone, seriously, flee. I am a stone-cold bastard who will cut you and my clone might be the same. Even worse, any clone of mine would surely Google my name, discover HTDYOC, read it, and be prepared for any shenanigans from the book that you might try against him.

KK: He’s not kidding. Terry once slapped me in the face for no good reason whatsoever. Yeah, it was a light slap, but still, right in the face. I can only assume that if Terry were cloned, he’d probably train his double to be some sort of insane, Kyle-slapping machine. But “hardest to beat?” I’m not convinced. The original Terry can be persuaded to do just about anything given the right motivation, like, say, a really large Diet Coke. I imagine his clone would be just as susceptible to such bribery.

No, the hardest clone to beat would be one that is looks exactly like you, but is superior in very subtle ways. Granted, a spliced-up super-clone would certainly be tough, but at least he’d be easy for your friends to distinguish, and he’ll probably be a bit of a cocky jerk, what with all the outrageous bioenhancements. You’re likely to at least find some buddies who’ll be willing to team up against this new version of you. However, if you had a clone that is almost exactly like you, but just a little bit better than you at everything, that could be really tricky. You’ll have few (if any) inherent advantages, and you’ll be competing for your family and friends with a guy who is, frankly, just a little bit more likable than you are. This is what we call the “you’re-in-a-buttload-of-trouble clone.”

As for the easiest clone to beat? Uh, that’d be a real one. Because it would be a baby.

GFTW: If it can be assumed your clone would not be evil or at least want to kill you, which type would be the best clone for a clone buddy?

KK: I’d want an age-matched clone for sure. The first clones are just going to be infant versions of the originals, so having one would just be an exercise in really ironic parenting. But more importantly, I’d want a clone who was willing to try my “trial-clone lifestyle.” For example, if I had a job interview, I’d send my clone in first. Assuming he completely mucked it up, he could then prep me for all the tough questions, and I could walk in right after, fully prepared, blaming the previous debacle on my mischevious “twin.” I’d get a second chance at everything. (Yes, I’m aware that this has about a million ways to backfire, but this is my hypothetical clone buddy, and I’m sticking with him).

TDJ: I think it would be most interesting to find out that I had been cloned from someone. I wouldn’t clone myself, so I’d be curious to find out why the original had me cloned. If I found his intentions compelling we could hang out, and if I didn’t, I could sue the hell out of him. Win/win.

GFTW: If you could only get one genetic modification, which would you choose and why?

TDJ: If the sky’s the limit, I’m going for increased creativity and intelligence. Then I could invent all of the other genetic enhancements that I might want. Is that cheating?

KK: Smarts are all well and good, but I’m going to go with “ninja-like athletic prowess.” I want to run on walls and do quadruple back flips from moving vehicles for no good reason. And not just now, but when I’m 85 and crotchety. The kids on my block will definitely be staying off my lawn.

GFTW: Thank you very much for your time, as we part, could you tell me where my readers can find you online?

TDJ: My pleasure! I maintain a homepage at Prometheus Untenured with links to my blog and all sorts of privacy-defying social networking sites.

KK: And I’m located at my name: www.kylekurpinski.com. Cheers!

WANT TO WIN A COPY OF HOW TO DEFEAT YOUR OWN CLONE that has been genetically modified to include the authors’ signature? Then answer the question below in the comments. The winner will be for the best/most creative answer as determined by Kurpinski and Johnson. Entries will be accepted until June 23, 2010. Good luck!

Hollywood has given us a number of genetically engineered creatures like intelligent sharks, bloodthirsty sheep, and Sigourney Weaver. Frightening as these creatures are, we suspect you can do better. Give us your pitch for your best new and terrifying celluloid monster.