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DIY Biohackers Are Editing Genes in Garages and Kitchens

With the latest breakthroughs in the life sciences, who needs a lab or degree?

"A biohacker for me is somebody who is doing something clever or interesting in biology," says Josiah Zayner, a molecular biophysicist who runs The ODIN, a company that sells do-it-yourself genetic engineering kits. "They're usually these people that have been fucked by the system who are trying to unfuck themselves."

Zayner is one of the leading figures in the biohacking movement and is the main organizer of the BioHack the Planet Conference, a yearly gathering of citizen scientists. This year, over 100 members of the biohacking community met in Oakland, California to discuss a wide array of issues from at-home genetic engineering to questions on bioethics.

Biohackers have often been compared to computer hackers of the 1980s, but instead of breaking into and manipulating information technology systems, they're focused on hacking living organisms with the hopes of curing illnesses and in some cases obtaining superhuman powers.

Their shared mission is to put this technology into the hands of as many people as possible.

"People should be able to use all the technologies that science develops," says Zayner. "It shouldn't just be patented and given to companies or exclusively given to certain people."

These do-it-yourself biologists say the democratization of science has given them the freedom to do work on projects that are often ignored by larger institutions. They're using gene editing technologies like CRISPR to create personalized treatments for those suffering from rare diseases or cancer, reverse engineering pharmaceuticals like Epi-Pens so people can make their own medicine at home, and even creating glow in the dark beer.

"I think this is the most exciting time thus far in the history of the world to be alive with respect to what we can and will do with life forms," says Hank Greely, the director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University.

But breakthroughs in the world of biohacking are drawing more scrutiny from federal regulators. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration began placing restrictions on non-human genetic modifications and declared that genetically edited animals must be classified as drugs. This gives the agency broad authority over a number of do-it-yourself genetics tests and requires experiments involving animals to go through the same vetting process as a new drug.

"I guess they couldn't call them cosmetics and they couldn't call them foods, so they're like dogs are drugs," states David Ishee, a Mississippi canine breeder who is working on editing out genetic diseases in dogs. "Everybody's worried about what someone could do with this technology and nobody seems to care about the damage that not doing it will cause because these animals are dying."

Increasing regulation could undermine biohacking breakthroughs for humans as well.

"I'm a huge fan of deregulation because I believe in the inherent goodness of capitalism," says Zayner. "Stuff doesn't progress unless people do useful things with it."

Produced by Alexis Garcia and Justin Monticello. Camera by Garcia, Monticello, and Zach Weissmueller.

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  • John||

    It's all fun and games until someone starts making biological weapons in their basement. That prospect is likely inevitable and is terrifying. I have a hard time being very excited about this.

  • Chipper Morning, Mean Girl||

    I don't think you know how this works. The kits for sale allow you to do specific experiments. What is available is very limited and not easily modified. No one is going to sell you a virulent pathogen. Where would the average person even find something like that?

  • CE||

    Supervillains are always way above average.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Someday the Harvard Boys are going to push those MIT kids too far. An extinction level event will immediately follow.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    You want a virulent pathogen? I can get you a virulent pathogen in under an hour. WITH antigen inhibitors on it.

  • Chipper Morning, Mean Girl||

    That's great news! You've found Crusty!

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    That's not her virulent pathogen, dude.

  • Ron||

    and no ever gased a subway, read japan, people willing to go that far with gas will go that far with pathogens and it probably isn't that hard.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Huh, some typing errors their. I assume you're talking about the Aum Shinrikyo. It doesn't necessarily refute your point, but that Sarin gas was already illegal when they bought it. It's also why trash cans are illegal in many public spaces.

    Reactions to terrorism leads to strange legislation at times.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    My grammar is getting worse and worse. I wish I could say that this was one of my phone posts, but nope. I had the full power of a computer to edit that post and I still mixed up their and there.

  • Mickey Rat||

    If it only allows specific experiments, then calling themselves "hackers" is something of a delusion of grandeur.

  • John||

    The concern is that as this technology grows it will become possible to create some very nasty things very cheaply and without that many expertise. I honestly don't know how you stop it. Laws won't keep the determined from doing this anymore than they stop them from building bombs or buying machine guns to use them for murder. Our future may well be a question of just how bad of a pandemic can man create.

  • ||

    The kits for sale allow you to do specific experiments.

    Uh... which kits?

    Where would the average person even find something like that?

    Assuming we're talking about building a biological weapon to kill lots of people, I'm going to assume we aren't talking about an average person. I'm also going to assume they'd be motivated enough to make it.

    Growing an existing pathogen isn't difficult. Knowledge/difficulty-wise it's probably on par with producing black powder or ANFO. Engineering a more virulent pathogen can be a bit more difficult, but not much. The greater problems are production and delivery logistics. A substantial initial infection would require you to do something physically/mechanically obvious like set off a bomb at a major sporting event or swap out all the soap dispensers at an athletic stadium. Both of these would require copious amounts of the pathogen in order to be feasible.

  • Ron||

    basic science classes will show you how to process most anything its similar to making moon shine and plenty of people do that without any kits and making spinners to separate is kids play, in fact kids experiment kits come with them.

  • Paint Thinner||

    That's what happens when you let black athletes kneel during the anthem

  • Mitsima||

    The U.S. has millions of these pathogen factories all over the country! Not only do they hide in plain sight they are often brightly colored, too! The cutsie and innocuous title, "Daycare", hides the origin of Armageddon.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration ... declared that genetically edited animals must be classified as drugs.

    It's just common sense.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Sure, how else are they going to assert control of something that is far outside their domain?

  • Jujucat||

    Yes. Common sense. Of COURSE dogs are drugs. Let's see... service dogs! yes! Helping depressed/anxious people. Umhm!

  • Mitsima||

    ATF decided they could regulate eCigs because mixing glycol, glycerin, & water creates tobacco. And people scoff when ancient texts tell us that flesh was made from clay.

  • Don't look at me.||

    The industry made a big mistake calling them anything but vaporizers.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Huh. There could be a downside to look out for--read Herbert's The White Plague. But regulation isn't the solution.

  • John||

    There is a huge downside. Why use a rifle or a bomb to kill a few hundred people when you can create a bioweapon that could kill thousands or even millions?

  • Mickey Rat||

    As shown in that book, it is not feasible to contain a weaponized disease to just the people you want to kill.

    Unless the person is someone just interested in the world burning, presumably they do not want it backfiring on them and theirs.

  • John||

    I agree but when there are people crazy enough to open fire on a concert for no apparent reason, there is likely someone who would be okay with a pandemic. Hell, I bet there are some radical greens who would see human extinction as a good.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Oh, wonder!
    How many goodly creatures are there here!
    How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
    That has such people in 't!

    Problem is, this isn't like nuclear weapons. The knowledge and the capabilities are there or are coming soon, and they can't be stopped. The alternative is mo' better biological technology, so that people aren't so vulnerable.

  • ||

    Problem is, this isn't like nuclear weapons.

    No, it is like nuclear weapons. Sure, you can slap some things together maybe scrape together some low-grade shit and set off a dirty bomb somewhere. You'll probably kill some people and maybe kill a lot. But if you want to vaporize a city, you're going to need access to gas centrifuges and yellowcake.

    In order to properly know the epidemiology of your virus and its efficacy/lethality (as well as its delivery system) you're either going to have to procure massive amounts of high-fidelity human analogues or kill lots of test subjects directly. Even if you somehow pull this off, whatever responders are available immediately post infection are going to have a massive advantage over you in terms of speed.

    The fact that we've passively diminished the element of surprise on a global level is more effective than any legislation that could be passed.

  • Jujucat||

    12 Monkeys anyone?

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    The real question: Do these kits contain bumpstocks?

  • Mitsima||

    and can those bumpstocks be spliced with thingies that go up? The potential for anarchy is unlimited.

  • ||

    "There's a lot of things that people think is like 15 yrs. away that you'll see in 6-8 mos."

    6-8 months always seems to be just less than ten years away.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Except when it isn't. Shit's getting weird.

  • Chipper Morning, Mean Girl||

    If I could extend my dog's life, I totally would. We need to frame all liberty discussions in terms of how it will prevent a cute dog from suffering, and we will convince most people to side with us.

  • Karl Hungus||

    We need to frame all liberty discussions in terms of how it will prevent a cute dog from suffering, and we will convince most people to side with us.

    And yet people still worship the police.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: DIY Biohackers Are Editing Genes in Garages and Kitchens
    With the latest breakthroughs in the life sciences, who needs a lab or degree?

    More and more employers allow their employees to work at home providing they have a computer and the internet.
    The microchip has truly revolutionized the world.
    Although a lot of office building owners downtown probably would have the good ol' days back where employees filled their office space.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    God, I hope I get to telecommute soon. As soon as that happens I am moving to bumfuck nowhere, buying 30 acres of land and building a compound with internet access.

  • Citizen X - #6||

  • CE||

    The real life X-Men are on the way....

  • Chipper Morning, Mean Girl||

    But enough about Caitlin Jenner.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    My favorite porn series.

  • Chipper Morning, Mean Girl||

    That's like Chris Christie saying "my favorite sandwich."

  • Mickey Rat||

    Or we are going to have a pestilence of Hulks, hopefully not the Ultimate version.

  • Bubba Jones||

    They're using gene editing technologies like CRISPR to create personalized treatments for those suffering from rare diseases or cancer

    Do you read your own links?

    The most ambitious thing described is to change the color of a carnation. And that guy hasn't even figured out how to grow unmodified plants from cells.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Nice, I'm tired of my instant breakfast being one of two boring colours.

  • mortiscrum||

    Thank you for posting this and saving me from having to watch the video (I'm at work anyways). As I was reading the article, I was thinking "how much are these people actually doing?" Yes CRISPR is incredibly cool and it shows a lot of promise, and has even been described with words like "simple," but none of that means someone is going to pick this up as a hobby and do something major laboratories aren't.

    It had the strong wiff of enthusiastic embellishment.

  • Ron||

    people said the same thing about 3d printers now you can get them for under $1500. and everyone is making guns in their garages with them

  • Bubba Jones||

    "I guess they couldn't call them cosmetics and they couldn't call them foods, so they're like dogs are drugs," states David Ishee, a Mississippi canine breeder who is working on editing out genetic diseases in dogs.

    This is equally ridiculous. If you have enough information to edit the genome, you have enough information to NOT BREED the mutant dogs.

    Which is cheaper and easier? Fixing the mutation, or just picking a different dog for breeding?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    People want their pure breeds I guess. Which is a bit sad. Really we get worked up about genetic editing, but look at the freaks we have created with simple selective breeding. A chihuahua, a dachshund, a jack russell, a marmaduke, and labrador, and a wolf are all basically the same animal. That's fucked up.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    And they know it, too, which is why every chihuahua you meet is just completely furious.

  • Mickey Rat||

    They are a race of dwarfs, which, of course, makes them bastards.

  • mortiscrum||

    This is the best comment I've seen today.

  • ||

    They're like thehosts in westworld, someday they will become self aware and seek revenge upon their creators.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Sure, but pure breeds aren't typically universally mutant.

    IIRC, dobermans suffer from a genetic form of hip dysplasia. But not ALL of them. Just a large fraction. If you could genotype a dog well enough to modify its genome, you could also just not breed it.

    The problem with pure breeds is that many of these disease traits don't appear until after they have been bred. With modern genetics, you can identify the bad lineages before you breed them.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    "I'm a huge fan of deregulation because I believe in the inherent goodness of capitalism," says Zayner.

    My God, what a monster. /sarc

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    It's very promising for all the same reasons computer hacking (read: innovation) is/was promising. And you don't need a special degree to do it.

    The only concern I have is that by not integrating their community with the rest of the scientific community, certain areas of self-policing are less possible. For example, Institutional Review Boards determine whether the research is ethically sound (e.g. Are you protecting human patients' privacy? Are you treating animals humanely?). Another example is the fact that the safeguards against things like data fabrication are potentially lost.

    But this is a community problem, not a government problem. And it's probably as much the fault of the scientific community as it is the hacker community -- maybe even more so.

  • Mitsima||

    "It shouldn't just be patented and given to companies or exclusively given to certain people."

    Yeah, until someone turns his project into a space-based weapon. Didn't this doofus _ever_ watch Real Genius?

  • mjerryfuerst||

    One of the persons interviewed expressed a very false belief:
    "I'm a huge fan of deregulation because I believe in the inherent goodness of capitalism,"

  • Mitsima||

    'Goodness' as in the most efficient way to bring good things to life (TM, GE), or 'goodness' as in, 'Sure I'll pay for your birth control; wait one while I pilfer that guy's wallet.'?

  • newer_moses||

    One cannot 'change' the invisible God, who is also IMMEASURABLE.

    Every physical action only affects God's universally physically visible surface symbolism.

    This is the reason for earth's oldest and only mathematically and logically self-evident rule book, for only THE MIND can change- the only condition of the body that is required is its presence- just like the condition of any building has no significant influence on the state of mind of the tenants within.

  • losmazeman||

    huh?

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    {sets newer_moses's house on fire}

    Feeling significantly influenced yet?

  • Richard Stallman||

    I know it's a side issue, but your definition of "hacker"
    misrepresents us hackers. Hacking means playful cleverness.
    That's what we computer hackers did in the 1970s and still do.
    That's what biohackers are doing today.

    See https://stallman.org/articles/on-hacking.html for full
    explanation.

  • macsnafu||

    OMG. Untrained people might do TERRIBLE things with these biokits. Therefore we must prevent all but trained, qualified (qualified by whom?) people to engage in bioediting.
    In short, how dare ordinary people try to take control of their lives and do things without government approval!

  • macsnafu||

    Did I forget my [sarc] tags? I think I forgot to include my [sarc] tags.

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