Hacking Your Genes Has Never Been Easier
What if you could alter your DNA profile, erase your risk for cancer, or just brew glowing beer? Whether that makes you giddy or terrified, that’s the dream of biohacker Josiah Zayner.
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Josiah Zayner and I are drinking fluorescent green beer at the ODIN, his Oakland lab. The tables are scattered with pipettes and disposable blue gloves, cases of Red Bull and Slim Jims are near at hand, and Drake is pulsing on the sound system. It’s not St. Patrick’s Day, and the beer isn’t really all that green. It’s the ghostly luminescence of jellyfish pulsing through the depths. That’s because it’s chock full of glowing jellyfish protein.
But no jellyfish were harmed in the making of this beer. Zayner is the world’s most notorious biohacker—a new breed of garage tinkerer experimenting with DNA and biological systems outside the confines of traditional research. In this case, he genetically engineered a common brewer’s yeast by adding a jellyfish’s green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene that he ordered online. As long as you know the DNA sequence of the gene you want—the A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s of the genetic code—you no longer need the actual critter the gene came from. You just run off the code on a special DNA printer containing cartridges filled with liquid A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s. Then you insert the new DNA into whichever organism you want to modify. The process is shockingly easy.
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I raise my glass and pause. Zayner’s yeast suffuses the beer with a gauzy haze. I have no idea which species of jellyfish the GFP gene came from, but my hunch is that it has never been a regular part of the human diet. Zayner assures me it’s safe. Genetic engineers love GFP because it’s such an easy visual. They include it with whichever other gene they’re trying to insert, and if their organism glows, they know the experiment worked without having to send off a sample for DNA sequencing. Scientists have engineered glowing cats and mice using GFP, he points out, and the creatures lived just fine.
I eye Zayner. He has drunk a fair amount of GFP beer himself, and while I wouldn’t say he looks normal—he sports dozens of piercings, plugs in both earlobes, and a spike of bleached hair that is sometimes blue and sometimes white—he seems healthy enough.
“Dude,” he assures me, “we did all the normal FDA tests. It’s nontoxic, nonallergenic.” As further proof, he shows me his left forearm. Right next to the tattoo that says CREATE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL is a row of four tiny wounds. “I modified myself with it. It’s fine.”
Zayner claims he was the first to genetically modify himself with another species’s DNA. For what he would call a science experiment and I would call conceptual art, he removed dead skin cells from his forearm (just rub the same spot with a toothbrush 200 times) and used a tattoo needle to punch jellyfish DNA into his skin. The DNA was attached to a common virus that specializes in infiltrating human cells and parking itself there. Those skin cells then began manufacturing the GFP along with all their regular proteins—though, to Zayner’s disappointment, not enough to see the glow with the naked eye. He also performed a DIY fecal transplant on himself, which was chronicled in the recent documentary Gut Hack, curing himself of years of irritable bowel syndrome.
I’m not sure what I think about any of this, starting with my beer. I tend to favor pilsner over jellybrew, but I’m trying to maintain my chill biohacker persona, so I chug. We’ve spiked it with enough blood orange juice to cover any weirdness, and frankly it goes down pretty easy. Just like that, this crunchy Vermonter who always shunned GMOs filled his belly with them, and starts looking forward to the week ahead.
I’d always thought of genetic engineering as something done in million-dollar labs by corporate powerhouses like Monsanto. Extracting the DNA from life forms and inserting it into other life forms seemed like the kind of thing that required high-tech machines and years of trial and error. And it used to. But that was before Crispr, Science magazine’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year, an engineered protein that can snip out sequences of DNA wherever you want. It’s like a search and replace function for genes. It works on bacterial cells, it works on mouse cells, and it works on human cells. It’s been used to engineer immune cells that kill cancer, viruses that kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, female mosquitoes that can’t reproduce (to crash the population), and a yeast infused with genetic code from poppies and rats that makes opioids out of sugar in a tank. But the crazy thing about Crispr is that it’s so easy to use and cheap to make that it also allows any budding hacker with some basic biology and a mischievous mind to play God in their garage.
The only thing missing is someone to share this knowledge with the multitudes, and that’s where Zayner comes in. He started out traditionally enough: wunderkind Ph. D. candidate at the University of Chicago and then research fellow at NASA, where he adapted organisms for life on Mars. But then, in 2015, he veered off to become the pierced Prometheus of genetic engineering, bringing it down to us mortals from the labs of academia. “In this field, there are a bunch of people with a lot of knowledge and a bunch of people with a lot of crazy,” he says with a smile, “but there are very few with a lot of knowledge and a lot of crazy.”
Not for the first time, I smile back at Zayner and try to gauge the crazy. For now I’m coming down on the side of “like a fox.” He’s made a huge success of the ODIN—short for Open Discovery Institute and inspired by the Norse god—the combination lab and mail-order business he founded in 2013 to make DIY bio accessible to everyone. The ODIN sells pre-engineered GFP yeast ($80) online, along with DIY Crispr kits ($150), fluorescent-yeast-engineering kits ($160), something called the Amino DNA Playground ($349), and a complete Genetic Engineering Home Lab Kit ($999) stocked with pipettes, tubes, scales, antibiotics, agar, light-activated bacteria, bioluminescent bacteria, Crispr, and a PCR machine, which makes copies of DNA through polymerase chain reaction. The ODIN’s clients include community colleges, high school kids, and mysterious individuals.
All ODIN kits are designed to engineer bacteria or yeast, the cheapest and simplest critters to work with, and they focus on obvious visuals like GFP. They are the Easy-Bake Ovens of genetic engineering. They offer quick success to rank amateurs like me and a tantalizing taste of the endless possibilities. Where we take it from there is up to us.
Zayner and his fellow biohackers are big on genetic freedom. Everything your body makes or does is encoded by a gene. And the more we learn about the genetic basis of human processes—from disease and life expectancy to athletic and mental performance—the closer we get to being able to reprogram our bodies. “I think we could do substantial changes to ourselves right now,” Zayner says. “You could go a little more crazy than scientists have been willing to let on.”
For years there have been rumors that people already are. Gene doping, as it’s called, could theoretically give anybody the ability to burn oxygen like a Tibetan mountaineer, to build muscle like LeBron James, and to never get heart disease. It’s all in the genes. It’s in the hard work and good habits, too, but without certain tools you can only go so far. And in either the shady present or the not so distant future, we’ll all have access to those tools, which Zayner finds pretty exciting. “This is the first time in human history that we’re no longer stuck with the genes we had at birth. It fucking blows your mind.”
“In this field, there are a bunch of people with a lot of knowledge and a bunch of people with a lot of crazy,” Zayner says with a smile, “but there are very few with a lot of knowledge and a lot of crazy.”
He sees no reason to let corporations and ivory-tower institutions have all the fun. Hence the Easy-Bake Ovens. Give a man a cookie and he eats for a day. Teach a man to cook and you’ve stolen fire from the gods.
Josiah Zayner. The name screams Marvel Comics. The backstory, too: Country childhood on an Indiana farm. Pentecostal parents. (His brothers are Micah, Zachariah, and Jedediah; the dog was named Jeremiah.) Missionary in Peru. Teenage member of the late-nineties hacker collective Legions of the Underground. Biophysics Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Synthetic-biology fellowship at NASA’s Ames Research Center. Then something goes horribly wrong.
In Zayner’s case, there was no lab explosion. No rampaging through the streets of Mountain View, paralyzing Google employees with jellyfish tentacles sprouting from his back. No, what went wrong is that Zayner discovered that NASA was deadly dull. Empty offices. Stultifying bureaucracy. A supervisor who actually told him to spend less time in the lab. Not the place for someone who wanted to change the universe. So he did what any budding superhero would do: he went rogue.
As his two-year NASA fellowship neared its end in 2015, Zayner launched an Indiegogo campaign offering contributors their own DIY gene-editing kit. He’d learned just enough while getting his Ph.D. to realize that genetic engineering was way more accessible than most people knew, and he couldn’t wait to liberate it from the elite labs he loathed and bring it to the people, because, as he told me, “I was always that poor-as-dirt kid dreaming that he could do some great experiment.” The pitch video featured shots of Zayner swigging from a flask at the lab bench (his kitchen counter) while the voiceover asked, “If you had access to cutting-edge syntheticbiology tools, what would you create?” The campaign raised more than $70,000.
It also freaked out critics. “Zayner’s campaign is worrisome because it does not seem to comply with the DIYbio.org code of conduct,” Todd Kuiken, a scholar in the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, wrote in Nature in 2016. He was referring to the nonprofit founded in 2008 to foster safe practices in DIY biology. For example, he noted, “The video that accompanies his campaign zooms in on petri dishes containing samples that are stored next to food in a refrigerator.” Kuiken also believes there needs to be a “robust public dialogue” about the responsible use of Crispr.
The refrigerator comment still annoys Zayner. “So are you saying that being able to do science is a class thing? Only people who can afford second fridges should do science?” But he got his act together and bought another fridge, in part because he was already under scrutiny from the FDA, which had threatened to seize his equipment because of his Internet sales. Zayner has also been warned of possible prosecution by officials in Germany, where biohacking is banned. But the practice is perfectly legal throughout the United States, mostly because it has never occurred to legislators to outlaw such a thing, and the ODIN is doing well. Zayner sells thousands of gene-editing kits globally every year, and he expects to gross at least $400,000 in 2017. The world wants this.
The workday at the ODIN starts late-morning. One employee is multi-tasking, packing kits for the day’s orders while he propagates new batches of microbes. Zayner’s brother Micah is scarfing Chinese takeout on the couch. The air is redolent with the funk of E. coli bacteria and young male. Zayner solders new wiring onto used PCR machines (“There are few things I’m one of the world’s leading experts on, but finding functional lab equipment on eBay is one of them,” he says) while guiding me through an attempt to engineer antibiotic resistance into E. coli using Crispr. Despite the punk trappings, Zayner is gentle, kind, and a very good teacher.
We rehydrate some dried E. coli in a test tube, pour it into a petri plate containing nutrients, and set it aside overnight. In the morning, we have a flourishing colony of fuzzy white bacteria. We scrape it up, divide it into two plastic tubes of liquid, and to one tube add a few drops of Crispr programmed to change a single A to a C, which will flip the electrical charge of a protein in the bacteria from positive to negative at the point where streptomycin normally attacks it, repelling the antibiotic molecules. Then we pour the two batches onto fresh agar plates laced with streptomycin and incubate everything at 99 degrees for 24 hours.
The next day, I pull our agar plates out of the incubator and examine them. Eureka! The normal bacteria is stone-cold dead. But the plate with the modified bacteria is studded with survivor colonies. We’ve created GMOs in a day. They and their trillions of descendants will be immune to streptomycin.
Or they would have been if we hadn’t killed the whole colony with bleach and thrown it in the trash. As crazy as our creation sounds, it turns out that it was pretty innocuous. This particular version of antibiotic resistance is so simple—just a single changed letter of DNA—that bacteria come up with it on their own all the time. We weren’t introducing anything the world hadn’t seen before, and anyway our weak lab strain was about as dangerous as a cocker spaniel. Yet I can’t help but wonder about all the biohackers out there who aren’t bleaching their experiments. What could the wrong person do with this knowledge?
That’s what I asked Ed You, the biological-countermeasures specialist at the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction directorate. You is the government’s point person on bioweapons; it’s his job to worry about this stuff, but he had bigger things on his mind than the ODIN. “The most dangerous bioterrorist out there is Mother Nature,” he told me over the phone. “We’re getting hit with emerging and reemerging infectious diseases all the time. Bird flu, MERS, SARS, Zika, West Nile. If you think about a clear and present danger, it’s that. So we absolutely need the innovation that comes from the life sciences, from DIY bio, to make sure we develop the right counters.”
Eureka! The normal bacteria is stone-cold dead. But the modified bacteria is studded with survivor colonies. We've created GMOs in a day. Their trillions of descendants will be forever immune to streptomycin.
Wait a minute, I said. You actually want them out there tinkering? Yes, he replied. “Biology is proliferating quickly, but how do we address security in a way that doesn’t handicap forward progress? If you shut down DIY bio, then you run a completely different national-security problem. If you stifle innovation, then you’re going to be missing out on opportunities to come up with new vaccines, new biodefense, new countermeasures, new businesses. And if that happens, then you’ve developed a whole different kind of vulnerability.”
You pointed out that the field was moving so fast that agents could never keep up with the pace of the advances. Instead, he’s cultivated a neighborhood-watch mentality among the country’s scientists and biohackers. “They’re best positioned to see where the advances are coming from,” he said. “If someone like Josiah gets a suspicious order of some kind, he knows that he’s got a local coordinator in the San Francisco field office he can contact.”
It all sounded strangely progressive for a bunch of G-men, but every expert I consulted told me that they had no concerns about Zayner. Forget the garagistas, they told me; worry about the academics. Many labs now have the technology and know-how to make some fearsome beasties. Last year, a scientist in Canada shocked the world when he managed to bring to life horsepox, a smallpox cousin that went extinct in the 1980s, by synthesizing its DNA from a sequence stored in a computer database. Are we entering a new era of bioterror?
Probably not, Zayner told me. “Let’s imagine you’re the worst person in the world and you want to hurt people with biologicals. First you have to have the knowledge. Then you have to have the facility. Then you have to think about how it’s going to spread. It would be an astounding feat. Could you kill one or two people? Sure. But you can do that with a fucking kitchen knife.”
That night, Zayner and I celebrate our successful biohack over pig-ear fries and sake at a Korean joint before heading over to Counter Culture Labs, a communal biohacker space where he occasionally teaches. Amid the lab benches and anarchist posters are shelves of strange plants under grow lights and a pig heart in a vat. One woman is attempting to create vegan cheese by inserting cow milk-producing genes into yeast, while another man is quietly sequencing the DNA of the mushrooms he collects in Mexico each summer. A small team are hard at work designing an organism that can produce human insulin. In keeping with the hacker ethos, they will gift it to the world open-source.
There are dozens of biohacker enclaves like this around the globe, such as Genspace in Brooklyn, New York, where hipsters can take Crispr classes and attend Biohacker Boot Camp. The U.S. has been the hub, but now Europe is coming on strong. DIYbio.org has nearly 5,000 members in its Google Group and boasts 99 local chapters, from Madison to Mumbai. Most biohackers never get beyond simple experiments with microbes, but a few have taken it further. David Ishee, a dog breeder in Mississippi, is editing heritable diseases out of his dalmatians. Sebastian Cocioba, a plant hacker in New York, engineered a pioneering blue rose gene, using a DNA sequence from a tropical clam that produces an intensely blue protein, as well as a “beefsteak” tomato that produces cow protein in its flesh. Cocioba, who operates out of his 12th-floor apartment in Long Island City, is so skilled that he has been asked by MIT to spearhead a top-secret flower project, the details of which can’t be shared except to say that in a few years it will capture the world’s attention.
And what about people? I ask. How long before cyclists start giving themselves the EPO gene to produce more red blood cells, or lifters start playing around with the gene for human growth factor?
Zayner laughs. “Dude, either people are already doing that shit, or it’s going to start immediately. I’d be very surprised if there isn’t somebody out there doing it already. It’s so hard to test for. What are you going to do, look for DNA? If a professional athlete came to me right now and said, ‘I’ll give you $100,000 to make me a piece of DNA,’ I’d be like, ‘Hell yeah.’ ”
Surprisingly, this is perfectly legal, though it’s long been banned by sporting organizations. Athletes and life-extension buffs have been sniffing around gene-therapy clinics for years, ever since pioneering physiologist Lee Sweeney, from the University of Pennsylvania, showed that mice injected with the gene IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, significantly increased their muscle mass. Sweeney has also shown that mice injected with endurance genes were able to run 70 percent farther on the wheel than their unmodified peers, and that couch-potato mice ran 44 percent farther.
Just this June, a team of U.S. and Israeli scientists announced the discovery of a rare genetic mutation linked to ten years of extra longevity in men. And in 2015, Liz Parrish, the CEO of the startup BioViva, announced that she was the first person to attempt to reverse her own aging with gene therapy. “I am patient zero,” she wrote on Reddit. “I will be 45 in January. I have aging as a disease.” Parrish traveled to a clinic in Colombia (the therapy isn’t approved in the U.S.) and received injections of one gene to extend the lifespan of her individual cells and another to block myostatin, the hormone that regulates muscle deterioration.
Myostatin is the holy grail of potential dopers who believe they can both arrest the natural deterioration of muscle and build more in their youth. Muscle is metabolically expensive to maintain, so myostatin’s job is to stop new muscle from being made once you’ve got enough and to atrophy muscle you aren’t using. You can find images online of dogs, cows, and people with a rare mutation that shuts down the myostatin gene and turns them into Incredible Hulks. Scientists in China recently used Crispr to turn off the myostatin gene in two beagles. The dogs look healthy, happy—and ripped.
But I’m less interested in what athletes are doing than in something Zayner said to me on my first day in the lab: This is the first time in history that we’re no longer stuck with the genes we had at birth. If Zayner has his way, we’ll all be sculpting our own evolution.
Let’s be clear: don’t try this at home! Although hundreds of gene-therapy trials are under way, and many experts believe they will eventually transform almost every aspect of human health, few have been proven safe. When you start scrambling your DNA, very bad things can happen. You can get cancer. Your immune system can attack the unfamiliar DNA, as happened when an 18-year-old with a rare metabolic disorder died during a University of Pennsylvania gene-therapy trial in 1999.
Every expert I consulted told me they had no concerns about Zayner. Forget the garagistas, they told me; worry about the academics. Many labs now have the know-how to make some fearsome beasties.
But sick people won’t wait for years of trials, Zayner says. He hears regularly from people willing to roll the dice. He’s been consulting pro bono for a man using Crispr to treat his own Huntington’s disease and another who is treating his 32-year-old wife’s advanced lung carcinoma with genetically engineered DNA vaccines. “A lot of people contact me with stuff like that—‘I’m suffering. Can you help?’ ”
Zayner sticks to the free advice, helping people figure out the sequence of the DNA they need without supplying anything himself, but he knows where this is headed. “The only thing holding people back is morality. I have no doubt there are places in Singapore or Thailand or the Philippines doing it. They could totally create individualized cancer treatments right now. Clinics will pop up. You’ll go to shops in the back alleys of Bangkok and hand $10,000 to a synthetic biologist and he’ll take a blood sample and make you up a vaccine in a couple of days.”
I’m flashing back to Blade Runner’s replicant shops—“I just do eyes”—when Zayner gets a funny smile and cocks his head. “Want to try something kind of creepy I’ve been thinking about?”
For our final piece of conceptual art, Zayner and I swab the crevices of our skin and inside our mouths with Q-tips and swirl the gunk into tubes of distilled water. We spread the contents over agar plates and incubate them overnight.
The next morning, Josiahthing is nearly barren, but Rowanthing is crawling with cells. “Look at those big fat yeasties!” Zayner mutters with envy. All I can think is, if this works, it will give new meaning to the term homebrew.
We scrape up some Josiahthing and Rowanthing and put each in its own microcentrifuge tube with some chemicals that soften up cell walls so new DNA can get inside. We pipette ten microliters of the jellyfish DNA into each tube, shake them up, let them sit for a few hours, then pour them across new agar plates and cross our fingers. “If this actually works, I might make it a kit,” Zayner muses.
By then I have to catch a flight home, so I tape up my petri plate and pack it, along with yellow-tint glasses and a blue LED, which makes the fluorescence easier to see. TSA doesn’t bat an eye.
The next day I get an e-mail from Zayner: “Any growth on that plate?”
“Yep! Four or five nice, puffy little white colonies.”
“Put on the glasses and shine blue light on them. Do they glow?”
I don the glasses and hit the plate with the blue LED. There are a dozen tiny colonies that stay dull under the light, but there are also five large conical colonies fluorescing like the Green Goblin. “Totally!” I write back, and send a photo.
“Amazing! So cool! So jealous. Mine didn’t work.”
I feel as proud as Victor Frankenstein. I’ve created life from my own spit. In the following weeks, Rowanthing develops an apex so green you don’t even need the glasses to see it. Whatever it is, it’s new to this planet, and it’s burbling away in my basement, waiting to meet the world.
Contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen (@rowanjacobsen) is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Justin Kaneps (@Justkaneps) is an Outside contributing photographer.