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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?
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“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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Written by frances

Lawyer, Believer, Idea Agent, Database Wrangler, Human Casserole. I want to see your peacock.

20 Comments

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  1. Please do not continue to appropriate "hackers" to include only the black-hats. They are the enemies of the hackers that are inventing the future.

  2. well… "the end of the world as we know it" may come sooner than we thought… the difference between these guys and corporations that do this in controlled environments, is that these guys think they're doing "the right shit bro"… wait till they make their first mistake… and it escapes the "clean kitchen"… xD

    but, unfortunately we have to accept our fates… no one can stop it now…

    cheers!

  3. While I don't doubt that Biohacking can lead to innovation, I feel like the argument behind it will change drastically after one of these guys kills someone or themselves by accident with their experimentation.

  4. In fairness, I see the dangers that can occur. However, the broader picture is also more sinister. Science grew fastest where there were fewer restraints. Now, science is being engulfed by Science™. As they pointed-out, Science™ wants to profit off of keeping humanity in the dark, not seek truth, which was supposed to be the goal of science.

  5. These guys are full of shit, dude wants me to believe he wants to use gene editing to feed hungry people. Riggghhttt….more like like line your own pocket. Can't let random smochs play with this stuff, dumb fucks like these guys will be the end of everything. American stupidity must be stopped!

  6. This Zayner guy has healed his own colon disease with poop transfer experimental technique some 10 years ago. Read that from Popular science.

  7. Ugh. So want to do that. I'm really damn good at biology so i probably could self teach myself. Just need to find the community

  8. What I want to know is how to get them to help me with the herpes kind of embarrassing when you got a sore on your lip, And 60% of people have herpes I feel their pain

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