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DIY Biohacking Can Change The World, If the Government Allows It

Biohackers, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

Josiah Zayner is a scientist and entrepreneur who quit his government job in a NASA lab to start The Odin, a synthetic biology company run out of his garage. For $150, anyone can now purchase the cutting-edge "gene editing" tool CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) through The Odin's online shop.

Zayner champions do-it-yourself "biohacking" as the future of science and often draws comparisons between his work and that of the computer scientists and hackers of the '80s and '90s who eventually become the titans of Silicon Valley.

"I think [genetic engineering] is really going to become a consumer industry," says Zayner. "Consumers drive a lot of technological advancement."

Biohackers like Zayner, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far, Zayner hasn't had to do either. But the launch of a new product that allows users to engineer fluorescent yeast by inserting a gene from a bio-luminescent jellyfish drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after officials learned that breweries were using the product to create glowing beer. They called up Zayner to discuss potential regulatory pitfalls.

Officials on the call, which Zayner recorded and posted on his YouTube channel, sound hesitant to make any hard-and-fast declarations about Zayner's work, but they do clearly express the opinion that the yeast modification constitutes a "food color additive," which is subject to pre-market approval by the agency. They instruct him that he should change the language on his website so that nobody construes the yeast as a food product. Zayner then asks them what will happen if he doesn't change anything, to which one of the officials replies,

"Well, there's a number of things that we could do, from a warning letter...to, where, if it got to the point where we would, you know, seize material."

They also tell him to keep track of who is buying the yeast kit and suggest that he could face "trouble" if breweries continue to use the product, even if he changes the marketing language.

"This is who I'm dealing with, a bunch of bullies," says Zayner. "Bullying people into doing what they want, not for scientific reasons, not for the betterment of the public...just because."

Zayner is not the only one in the genetics industry burdened with regulatory uncertainty. Another such case is that of Antony Evans at TAXA, a San Francisco-based synthetic biology company that aims to engineer plants to supplement or replace common household items. They currently have a glowing plant in development, which Evans envisions as an alternative to nighttime lighting, and fragrant moss that could act as an organic air freshener. He's had products jammed up by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the past.

"If you're an entrepreneur creating a regulated article, the cost to getting that product to market is extremely high," says Evans. "That's why a lot of entrepreneurs are starting in the edges."

Evans believes that it's the pre-market approval process that stymies innovation among small, lean startups, which cannot afford to wait years and spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to take a product to market. The FDA does allow products that only contain substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) to go straight to market, but Zayner and Evans both believe the list of GRAS substances is far too limited and the process for approval needlessly burdensome and time-consuming.

"We have no idea how much we are inhibiting [innovation], but we just know that we are because it's almost impossible to launch a plant GMO company."

Watch the full video above.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmueller. Music by Jon Luc Hefferman.

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  • bvandyke||

    Glowing beer, I wonder what you pee looks like after drinking the beer? That is my only question.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    Think glowing underwear. May be this would finally get men to wipe their peckers after peeing.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Put a TP roll next to the urinals, and maybe then will.

  • SQRLSY One||

    But the Donald is gonna FIX all of this, by draining the swamp, right?!? RIGHT?!?!

    Trumpty Dumpty, He's quite off-the-wall,
    Trumpty Dumpty won't stay in His toilet stall
    He just goes ahead and takes His shits,
    Totally regardless of whereever He sits
    Whenever He simply, no way, can sleep,
    He Twits us His thoughts, they're all SOOO deep!
    He simply must, He MUST, Twit us His bird,
    No matter the words, however absurd!
    He sits and snorts His coke with a spoon,
    Then He brazenly shoots us His moon!
    They say He'll be impeached by June,
    Man, oh man, June cannot come too soon!
    So He sits and jiggles His balls,
    Then He Twitters upon the walls
    "Some come here to sit and think,
    Some come here to shit and stink
    But I come here to scratch my balls,
    And read the writings on the walls
    Here I sit, My cheeks a-flexin'
    Giving birth to another Texan!
    He who writes these lines of wit,
    Wraps His Trump in little balls,
    He who reads these lines of wit,
    Eats those loser's balls of shit!"

  • EscherEnigma||

    Hrm... did any of those brewers actually succeed at making glowing beer? The article says they were trying, but no mention of success. Does the video give more detail?

    That said, depending on how he's making the yeast glow, the "glowing beer" may only glow if they keep the (mostly) dead yeast in solution† as it's the dead yeast, and not the liquid beer, that's glowing. In that case, I don't think it would change your pee. For that matter, depending on what kind of jellyfish he used, it might not make anything glow after it's been in the dark (that is, your guy) for long enough.

    So... my armchair analysis says no, it would not. But that's a weak idea weakly held.
    ________
    †My 30-second google search tells me that it's normally taken out of commercial beers, but sometimes left in.

  • Don't look at me.||

    Dead yeast will no longer glow.

  • ||

    Glowing beer, I wonder what you pee looks like after drinking the beer? That is my only question.

    It's a protein that glows. So, if you drink a glowing protein and it shows up whole in your urine, probably best to put the drink down and maybe go see a internist. Both for the digestion that's not taking place in your stomach and the filtration that's not happening in your kidneys.

  • Jima||

    I'm no fan of the heavy hand of government, but if you unknowingly create a genetic change that makes something lethal, and it propagates via cell division, who's to say which version of that thing succeeds in the environment at large? Maybe it sounds like Chicken Little yelling, "the sky is falling," but screwing with the genomes of things which can reproduce? Seems risky if you don't understand the possible consequences of the outcome. It's like dumping a box of hand grenades in the day care toy box. Sure, some kids might play with them and be fine, but sooner or later, there is going to be a seriously tragic event. Randomly changing genomes that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years just for fun? I am not against genetic engineering, just like I am not against nuclear power. Both have great potential when well employed. But you can't build a nuclear power plant in your garage. You might build a honeybee with cobra venom and a bad attitude though, and it might be better at fending off predators that the regular honeybees. Like in Orwell's War of the Worlds, except we might engineer our own demise via microbes. Glow in the dark beer might be cool and harmless, or it might cause brain cancer in 10 years. I'll wait for that research and drink regular beer for now...

  • Fk Censorship||

    Orwell did not write war of the worlds. My pedantic $0.02

  • Jima||

    Oh...shit. Sorry yeah, H.G.Wells made me think Orson Wells, which led my feeble memory to Orwell... somehow. Symptoms of a misspent youth probably. So point taken and noted.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    I think you meant Chapek's War with the Newts. Which forces me to ask, do we really need more semi-sentient Newts?

  • contrarian||

    "Randomly changing genomes that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years"

    Like evolution has been doing this entire time?

  • John||

    YEs like evolution. Take for example the bird flu virus. It, fortunately, is not very contagious between humans and usually doesn't even affect humans. Thanks to evolution, it mutates at a given rate and given enough time it eventually mutates into something that crosses the species barrier and becomes deadly to humans and depending on how unlucky we are with the mutation is some level of contagion.

    Now we could and probably will have a full on pandemic when the evolutionary slot machine finally comes up with our number. Just because that is true, doesn't mean it is a good idea to have people out there looking to make the numbers come up sooner. And that is what we are going to end up with some day if we are not careful.

    Do you really love this shit so much you want to live in a world where any nut with a masters in biology and some good equipment can create a pandemic out of their basement?

  • ||

    Do you really love this shit so much you want to live in a world where any nut with a masters in biology and some good equipment can create a pandemic out of their basement?

    No offense John, intellects of Masters of Biology not withstanding, I don't believe this to be different from current reality.

  • contrarian||

    You can't evince tail risks by describing problems that didn't materialize.

    But let's take it seriously and say it's just a combinatorial problem as far as mother nature is concerned. The reality is that anyone sophisticated enough to entertain developing a serious pathogen (high lethality, long incubation, coated so as to resist immunity, very contagious) already has Cas9 and whatever guide RNAs he wants. So why aren't we all dead?

  • John||

    Because we have been lucky.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might be, if they screamed all the time for no good reason.

  • John||

    There is no if about it. It is just a matter of time before the technology to create some very nasty bugs will not only be out there it will be easily achievable by amateurs. Maybe a few pandemics caused by terrorists or insane greens or just some careless nut who wanted to create and own a pandemic virus the way some people want to own black mamba snakes is a price worth paying for the freedom to create all of these wonderful things. But, we should at least be honest and admit that is reality instead of pretending it could never happen because really bad thing apparently can't ever actually happen or something.

  • ||

    It is just a matter of time before the technology to create some very nasty bugs will not only be out there it will be easily achievable by amateurs.

    In the amateurs and terrorists defense, still not as scary as what the state can do.

  • John||

    Maybe but so what? The state has always been able to kill people more efficiently than non state actors. That doesn't make the threat of being murdered by non state actors any less worrying.

  • ||

    See above re: current reality, I guess. You seem to see to be conceptualizing it in terms of keeping the cat in the bag/genie in the bottle. When, IMO, Pandora's Box was built, copied, opened, smashed to pieces, and the instructions for making copies from any given piece scattered all over the internet.

    Creating the next Spanish Flu Epidemic is going to be akin to building another fat man bomb, IMO. Terrorists and grad students are going to be able to hack together the functional equivalent of dirty bombs, but truly pulling off anything close to the original epidemic will require cooperation and moving parts that far exceed simple biological know-how.

    Either you're going to have open government-funded research, fully compliant with FOIA requests, or you're going back-room data shredding and FISA courts who get to say what research the public can know and what research it can't.

  • Bubba Jones||

    It's a LOT easier to break something than to create it.

    Adding GFP as a fluorescent tag is something he copied from a catalog.

    It requires UV light to stimulate the glow.

  • Old Monkey||

    Already concurring naturally, sooner or later it is likely to happen anyway. I'd prefer the technology remains in the hands of those who know what they are doing.

  • Thrackmoor||

    I do love me some Jack Handey from SNL. I have the book.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Of course, not all Screaming Trees are annoying.

  • ||

    It's like dumping a box of hand grenades in the day care toy box.

    Which is why the U.S. rigorously implemented a parental education policy to make sure that no children were given hand grenades until they were old enough to ask for them.

  • John||

    If hand grenades were legal and commonly owned in this country, some idiot somewhere would let their kid play with one and the kid would blow themselves up. It would be inevitable. Whether that makes it okay to ban hand grenades is a different debate, but it would happen.

  • ||

    Define legal and commonly owned.

    Hobbyists and nutjobs blow themselves up. They did so before the ATF, they have done so after the ATF.

  • Ron||

    so can a person turn off a glow in the dark plant when they want to sleep

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    they're not bullying you 'just because', they're bullying you (overused word) because they've staked out a territory and they believe that you fall within that territory. If they DON'T bully you, you represent a failure of control over that territory.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    And so the Eugenics Wars of the 1990's begins.

  • CE||

    DIY biohacking -- what could possibly go wrong?

  • Don't look at me.||

    What might have gone well, but didn't?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Hitler?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    +1 boys from Brazil.

  • DJF||

    But I don't want to be blue!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Did he quit his job at NASA or did they fire him because of all the unsafe metal objects scattered around his head?

  • ||

    Back in 1999 you needed a million dollars to create a website and have a web server.

    WTHF? This does little to establish your credit as someone who knows anything about technology, markets, standards and regulations, etc. especially if you aren't a millennial.

  • Bubba Jones||

    GFP, sold in the form of yeast to a brewery, does sound like a food color additive to me.

  • Bubba Jones||

    But, if the brewery had found a wild yeast that glowed, they could use it...

  • Don't look at me.||

    Chernobyl yeast.

  • Robert||

    It's all because of how "intended use" has been interpreted in the US Code & corresponding state laws, so that any use of your product that you don't take great pains to prevent your customers from making is construed as intended by you. It's much worse than product liability law, because it's being used to stretch prohibitions on marketing (i.e. laws constraining business) into prohibitions on use of things, even where the statutes were originally sold as not inhibiting consumer choice but only fraudulent marketing. In product liability law you still have a decent chance of disclaiming and getting the liability on the user, but in regulatory law it doesn't work that way.

  • Jima||

    Admittedly, my metaphors in my earlier comment were crude, and I don't know anything much about genetics, but it is possible for a determined expert to probably cause trouble in that field, no? I get that genetic mutation goes on around us all the time. I imagine some portion of those mutations are random, and some portion due to outside stimulus. None of them are purposely done with malicious intent. That possibility exists now, and it's worth considering the possible consequences.

  • Jima||

    Admittedly, my metaphors in my earlier comment were crude, and I don't know anything much about genetics, but it is possible for a determined expert to probably cause trouble in that field, no? I get that genetic mutation goes on around us all the time. I imagine some portion of those mutations are random, and some portion due to outside stimulus. None of them are purposely done with malicious intent. That possibility exists now, and it's worth considering the possible consequences.

  • Joe Wazzzz||

    What does it say when in every aspect of our lives, we are all worried about "what the government allows?" This is clearly the post-liberty period of American history.

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