Biology

Biohacking experiments at home. Is DIY biology safe? How far should we allow genetic engineering to go?

Josiah Zayner, the “biohacker” who has experimented on himself multiple times had an interview recently. Watching it, i ended up thinking that as someone interested and involved in science and biology i have very mixed feelings about his actions. I’ll explain more after i tell you who he is.

He is (or was) a researcher working for NASA. He has a Ph.D. And he let everything behind to start his own company. It is called “The Odin” and he sells kits that allow people interested in biology to genetically engineer organisms using CRISPR. He has genetically engineered his gut microbiome, through a microbiome transplant. He has attempted to use CRISPR to remove/inactivate the myostatin gene in his muscle cells.

He has said before that he regrets doing those experiments, because other just do the same for the publicity and in the process embarrass the DIY-bio community. In this interview he compares genetic engineering to computer coding. At first it seems like a good analogy, but the risk is a lot higher. Allowing anyone to experiment with tools like CRISPR can have unforeseen consequences. I may be overprotective, but bricking a computer is a lot less bad than killing a person with an experiment.

There is a reason research takes time and is done by professionals, under the control and approval of other professionals. He does have a point though in that it is hard to make something harmful with CRISPR. Unless you inject yourself with it, but still that’s just one person. Is it worth it though to become a guinea pig for science? There are reasons we use cell cultures and animals for the first tests of any new treatment.

On the other hand i do see how, making CRISPR and genetic engineering tools available to more people will lead to more ideas, more interest towards biology and finally greater progress in the field.

I do see how DIY biology can help genetic engineering evolve in the same way computers evolved in the last decade. But i am more concerned in this case and i think he should also be. The DIY, biohacking community is still small and those involved are “real” scientists (with research degrees) that want to do research independently with their own funding and resources. In many cases this is very possible but the problem may come if one person with bad intentions gets involved. Right now i don’t think that we have enough safety measures to prevent such a thing and we should if we want biohacking to be as successful as computer hacking.

I don’t want to see the government banning DIY experiments. It has happened in some countries and i think it shouldn’t. But at the same time i want some regulation. This can be in the form of a registration like registering your lab and having someone inspect it. I like how those communities have grown. You can find online guides on how to make your own lab equipment and most importantly you can find people willing to help you. It is a good community and hobby, but sometimes people who behave like Josiah Zayner scare me. Maybe it’s all for publicity, to bring attention to all the DIY labs and potentially funding too from potential investors.

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