How to Genetically Engineer a Human in Your Garage

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Earlier this year a YouTube video entitled “How to Genetically Engineer a Human in Your Garage” circulated around my lab. I watched in astonishment and disbelief as “biohacker” Josiah Zayner pipetted plasmids, DNA elements capable of transferring genetic information, onto his skin in an attempt to express green fluorescent protein (GFP) in an unconventional site, his own arm. When that did not work, he tried syringe injections, a tattoo gun and viral delivery of the plasmids, all without success.

The video, which takes place in a dimly-lit converted lab space in his garage, is set to Nicki Minaj’s “The Night is Still Young” and has over 50,000 views. This video was my first exposure to the concept of biohacking, or do-it-yourself (DIY) science with the goal of finding new and clever ways to experiment with or manipulate biology. Although I’d never seen anything like Zayner’s extreme biological acts, I had heard of his company, The Open Discovery Institute (ODIN). The ODIN is an online lab supply store for citizen scientists that strives to make “Science and Genetic Engineering Accessible and Affordable.” It allows people with no formal scientific training access to cutting-edge scientific materials, such as at-home CRISPR gene editing kits starting at $159.

Providing the resources for would-be biologists to perform DIY experiments is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself; however bringing these experiments outside of traditional lab spaces often also means performing them outside of traditional lab safety precautions. Many experiments coming out of the biohacker community are unconventional, pushing the boundaries of self-experimentation. For example, biohackers have performed microbiome “transplants” that involve body sterilization and repopulation of their microbial communities using friend’s feces, injected themselves with untested and unapproved treatments for infectious diseases and attempted to use CRISPR gene editing on themselves to acquire bigger muscles. These loosely-defined experiments seem more like elaborate performance art pieces or publicity stunts than legitimate science. The real issue, however, is that with minimal regulation there is a serious possibility for these biohacking stunts to turn dangerous.

In an attempt to learn more, I attended the BioHack the Planet Conference earlier this month at the Omni Commons in Oakland. While unsure of what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised that there were both self-taught and traditionally trained scientists in attendance, as well as bioethicists, and science communicators. All of the speakers stimulated interesting and important discussions about things such as whether humans should strive to live forever or the importance of applying an incremental and methodical approach to biological self-experimentation so that people don’t accidentally hurt themselves.

Many of the presenters were quite shocking. Anastasia Synn, a magician and performer, pushed a large needle entirely through her upper arm as part of her act. Tristan Roberts talked about self-injecting an untested, experimental therapy for HIV while he was being live-streamed on Facebook. Rich Lee, a body/sensory augmentation and implant enthusiast, discussed his current work on a vibrating penile implant called the Lovetron 9000. At the same time, the entire community seemed to be acutely aware of the negative press some of the more outlandish stunts were giving their community - including Zayner himself who organizes the BioHack the Planet Conference.

In an article published this year by The Atlantic, Zayner was interviewed after Aaron Traywick (Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO, the company behind the untested HIV therapy that Roberts self-injected) publically dropped his pants and injected himself with an untested herpes treatment. In his interview, Zayner expressed regret and concern about the influence that his own biohacking stunts may have had, even stating, “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually.”

Despite some of his actions, Zayner’s scientific credentials are not insignificant. He holds a PhD in Biophysics from the University of Chicago and subsequently worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center for two years. Though he seems to understand the risks involved in what he is doing to himself, the same might not be true for those who do not have a comprehensive grasp of the science behind the experiments they are doing. So, why keep it up?

Zayner points to the discrepancies between the advancements made and published in academic research and how much time it then takes for those discoveries and technologies to be made available for the general public to use or benefit from. While he’s not wrong, I would argue that this time gap is critically important to make sure we develop safe and tested therapies. Some of the tactics the biohacker community have decided to use in an attempt to bridge that gap come with significant risks and distract from other important goals of citizen science, such as representation and accessibility.

Setting the extreme examples of biohacking aside, many people in this community are fiercely dedicated to open access and reject the traditional notion that you must have a formal science education to be a scientist. This has allowed for the development of community lab spaces like BioCurious and Counter Culture Labs here in the Bay Area, where anyone can have access to lab reagents and equipment. Efforts such as Open Insulin are empowering a team of biohackers to work on developing newer, simpler, less expensive ways to make insulin. Biohackers are exploring ways to engineer baker’s yeast that produces milk-protein to make Real Vegan Cheese without the need for animals.

In the future, I hope to see the biohacker community treading carefully around potentially dangerous applications of science and continuing to encourage people from all different backgrounds to get excited about and involved in science.