It must have been quite the conference. Josiah Zayner plunged a needle into himself and claimed to have changed his DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) while giving his talk. (*Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.*) From an Oct. 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),
“What we’ve got here is some DNA, and this is a syringe,” Josiah Zayner tells a room full of synthetic biologists and other researchers. He fills the needle and plunges it into his skin. “This will modify my muscle genes and give me bigger muscles.”
Zayner, a biohacker–basically meaning he experiments with biology in a DIY lab rather than a traditional one–was giving a talk called “A Step-by-Step Guide to Genetically Modifying Yourself With CRISPR” at the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco, where other presentations featured academics in suits and the young CEOs of typical biotech startups. Unlike the others, he started his workshop by handing out shots of scotch and a booklet explaining the basics of DIY [do-it-yourwelf] genome engineering.
If you want to genetically modify yourself, it turns out, it’s not necessarily complicated. As he offered samples in small baggies to the crowd, Zayner explained that it took him about five minutes to make the DNA that he brought to the presentation. The vial held Cas9, an enzyme that snips DNA at a particular location targeted by guide RNA, in the gene-editing system known as CRISPR. In this case, it was designed to knock out the myostatin gene, which produces a hormone that limits muscle growth and lets muscles atrophy. In a study in China, dogs with the edited gene had double the muscle mass of normal dogs. If anyone in the audience wanted to try it, they could take a vial home and inject it later. Even rubbing it on skin, Zayner said, would have some effect on cells, albeit limited.
Peters goes on to note that Zayner has a PhD in molecular biology and biophysics and worked for NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Zayner’s Wikipedia entry fills in a few more details (Note: Links have been removed),
Zayner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2013. He then spent two years as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where he worked on Martian colony habitat design. While at the agency, Zayner also analyzed speech patterns in online chat, Twitter, and books, and found that language on Twitter and online chat is closer to how people talk than to how they write. Zayner found NASA’s scientific work less innovative than he expected, and upon leaving in January 2016, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide CRISPR kits to let the general public experiment with editing bacterial DNA. He also continued his grad school business, The ODIN, which sells kits to let the general public experiment at home. As of May 2016, The ODIN had four employees and operates out of Zayner’s garage.
He refers to himself as a biohacker and believes in the importance in letting the general public participate in scientific experimentation, rather than leaving it segregated to labs. Zayner found the biohacking community exclusive and hierarchical, particularly in the types of people who decide what is “safe”. He hopes that his projects can let even more people experiment in their homes. Other scientists responded that biohacking is inherently privileged, as it requires leisure time and money, and that deviance from the safety rules of concern would lead to even harsher regulations for all. Zayner’s public CRISPR kit campaign coincided with wider scrutiny over genetic modification. Zayner maintained that these fears were based on misunderstandings of the product, as genetic experiments on yeast and bacteria cannot produce a viral epidemic. In April 2015, Zayner ran a hoax on Craigslist to raise awareness about the future potential of forgery in forensics genetics testing.
In February 2016, Zayner performed a full body microbiome transplant on himself, including a fecal transplant, to experiment with microbiome engineering and see if he could cure himself from gastrointestinal and other health issues. The microbiome from the donors feces successfully transplanted in Zayner’s gut according to DNA sequencing done on samples. This experiment was documented by filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni and turned into the short documentary film Gut Hack.
In December 2016, Zayner created a fluorescent beer by engineering yeast to contain the green fluorescent protein from jellyfish. Zayner’s company, The ODIN, released kits to allow people to create their own engineered fluorescent yeast and this was met with some controversy as the FDA declared the green fluorescent protein can be seen as a color additive. Zayner, views the kit as a way that individual can use genetic engineering to create things in their everyday life.
I found the video for Zayner’s now completed crowdfunding campaign,
I also found The ODIN website (mentioned in the Wikipedia essay) where they claim to be selling various gene editing and gene engineering kits including the CRISPR editing kits mentioned in Peters’ article,
In 2016, he [Zayner] sold $200,000 worth of products, including a kit for yeast that can be used to brew glowing bioluminescent beer, a kit to discover antibiotics at home, and a full home lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. In 2017, he expects to double sales. Many kits are simple, and most buyers probably aren’t using the supplies to attempt to engineer themselves (many kits go to classrooms). But Zayner also hopes that as people using the kits gain genetic literacy, they experiment in wilder ways.
He questions whether traditional research methods, like randomized controlled trials, are the only way to make discoveries, pointing out that in newer personalized medicine (such as immunotherapy for cancer, which is personalized for each patient), a sample size of one person makes sense. At his workshop, he argued that people should have the choice to self-experiment if they want to; we also change our DNA when we drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or breathe in dirty city air. Other society-sanctioned activities are more dangerous. “We sacrifice maybe a million people a year to the car gods,” he said. “If you ask someone, ‘Would you get rid of cars?’–no.” …
US researchers both conventional and DIY types such as Zayner are not the only ones who are editing genes. The Chinese study mentioned in Peters’ article was written up in an Oct. 19, 2015 article by Antonio Regalado for the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),
Scientists in China say they are the first to use gene editing to produce customized dogs. They created a beagle with double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a gene called myostatin.
The dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Liangxue Lai, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, said in an e-mail.
Lai and 28 colleagues reported their results last week in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, saying they intend to create dogs with other DNA mutations, including ones that mimic human diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy. “The goal of the research is to explore an approach to the generation of new disease dog models for biomedical research,” says Lai. “Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics.”
Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. Other teams, however, could move quickly to commercialize gene-altered dogs, potentially editing their DNA to change their size, enhance their intelligence, or correct genetic illnesses. A different Chinese Institute, BGI, said in September it had begun selling miniature pigs, created via gene editing, for $1,600 each as novelty pets.
People have been influencing the genetics of dogs for millennia. By at least 36,000 years ago, early humans had already started to tame wolves and shape the companions we have today. Charles Darwin frequently cited dog breeding in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how evolution gradually occurs by a process of selection. With CRISPR, however, evolution is no longer gradual or subject to chance. It is immediate and under human control.
It is precisely that power that is stirring wide debate and concern over CRISPR. Yet at least some researchers think that gene-edited dogs could put a furry, friendly face on the technology. In an interview this month, George Church, a professor at Harvard University who leads a large effort to employ CRISPR editing, said he thinks it will be possible to augment dogs by using DNA edits to make them live longer or simply make them smarter.
Church said he also believed the alteration of dogs and other large animals could open a path to eventual gene editing of people. “Germline editing of pigs or dogs offers a line into it,” he said. “People might say, ‘Hey, it works.’ ”
In the meantime, Zayner’s ideas are certainly thought provoking. I’m not endorsing either his products or his ideas but it should be noted that early science pioneers such as Humphrey Davy and others experimented on themselves. For anyone unfamiliar with Davy, (from the Humphrey Davy Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),
Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829) was a Cornish chemist and inventor, who is best remembered today for isolating a series of substances for the first time: potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron the following year, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. Berzelius called Davy’s 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity “one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry.” He was a Baronet, President of the Royal Society (PRS), Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS). He also invented the Davy lamp and a very early form of incandescent light bulb.
A Nov. 11, 2017 posting on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Quirks and Quarks blog notes that self-experimentation has a long history and goes on to describe Zayner’s and others biohacking exploits before describing the legality of biohacking in Canada,
With biohackers entering into the space traditionally held by scientists and clinicians, it begs questions. Professor Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta, says when he hears of somebody giving themselves biohacked gene therapy, he wonders: “Is this legal? Is this safe? And if it’s not safe, is there anything that we can do about regulating it? And to be honest with you that’s a tough question and I think it’s an open question.”
In Canada, Caulfield says, Health Canada focuses on products. “You have to have something that you are going to regulate or you have to have something that’s making health claims. So if there is a product that is saying I can cure X, Y, or Z, Health Canada can say, ‘Well let’s make sure the science really backs up that claim.’ The problem with these do-it-yourself approaches is there isn’t really a product. You know these people are experimenting on themselves with something that may or may not be designed for health purposes.”
According to Caufield, if you could buy a gene therapy kit that was being marketed to you to biohack yourself, that would be different. “Health Canada could jump in. But right here that’s not the case,” he says.
There are places in the world that do regulate biohacking, says Caulfield. “Germany, for example, they have specific laws for it. And here in Canada we do have a regulatory framework that says that you cannot do gene therapy that will alter the germ line. In other words, you can’t do gene therapy or any kind of genetic editing that will create a change that you will pass on to your offspring. So that would be illegal, but that’s not what’s happening here. And I don’t think there’s a regulatory framework that adequately captures it.”
Infectious disease and policy experts aren’t that concerned yet about the possibility of a biohacker unleashing a genetically modified super germ into the population.
“I think in the future that could be a problem,”says Caulfield, “but this isn’t something that would be easy to do in your garage. I think it’s complicated science. But having said that, the science is moving quickly. We need to think about how we are going to control the potential harms.”
You can find out more about the ‘wild’ people (mostly men) of early science in Richard Holmes’ 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.
Finally, should you be interested in connecting with synthetic biology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and others, SynBioBeta is more than a conference; it’s also an activity hub.
ETA January 25, 2018 (five minutes later): There are some CRISPR/CAS9 events taking place in Toronto, Canada on January 24 and 25, 2018. One is a workshop with Portuguese artist, Marta de Menezes, and the other is a panel discussion. See my January 10, 2018 posting for more details.
*’Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.’ and ‘Canadian content’ added January 25, 2018 six minutes after first publication.
ETA February 20, 2018: Sarah Zhang’s Feb. 20, 2018 article for The Atlantic revisits Josiah Zayner’s decision to inject himself with CRISPR,
When Josiah Zayner watched a biotech CEO drop his pants at a biohacking conference and inject himself with an untested herpes treatment, he realized things had gone off the rails.
Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking—loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He’s sterilized his body to “transplant” his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He’s squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He’s extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles—in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say—and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded—it’s unlikely to work.)
So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.
“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October  had been getting to him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,” he said.
Yup, it’s one of the reasons for rules; people take things too far. The trick is figuring out how to achieve balance between risk taking and recklessness.