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Bringing a new life into the world when life itself has become such an unstable category induces a strange kind of anxiety. Parents have always feared the unknowable future. But until the past decade or so, wondering whether your son would keep the genetic identity he was born with would have seemed a sci-fi delusion. No credible scientist would say that bioengineers are close to infusing human subjects with horse genes to run faster or fish genes for breathing under water. Yet these comic book fantasies contain a germ of credibility.

In 2009, Aull and her crew from Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the first biogeeks to take the CodeCon stage. The pressure was high: Could biotech hang with the keyboard jockeys who had already shown how a few lines of code could shake up entire economies? Aull put herself through MIT working nights at a DNA synthesis company. Creating chunks of genes out of life’s basic building blocks for profit may sound like profound, painstaking work. In practice, DNA-synthesis shops do the grunt work for research labs, which outsource the tedious mechanical work of building the same sequences over and over again to free up scientists to generate discoveries.

Upstairs houses the electronics workshop. Shelves teem with brightly colored bins holding what look like all the parts you would need to build a robot. Across the room, inhabiting a corner next to the desktop Dell and a Peg-board draped in Christmas lights, is New England’s first community-based biology workshop. The space holds everything a budding biohacker would crave. Two machines for Xeroxing DNA. A squat, steel, sterilizing autoclave, the biolab equivalent of a pressure cooker, complete with a vintage Mad Men–era analog pressure gauge sticking up off the lid.

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