“I think everybody’s worried about the risks of genetic engineering and how it’s going to hurt people, and nobody’s worried about the risks of what’s going to happen if we don’t allow people to do genetic engineering.” - Josiah Zayner, founder of The Open Discovery Institute
Before the bustling 2010s brought with it humanity’s most innovative takes on science and technology from artificial intelligence to the first-ever image of a black hole, there was an emerging sapling of do-it-yourself (DIY) biology in 2008, which today is growing at soaring heights. This was a global movement where ideas about the use of biotechnology in favour of traditional science and its limitations were spread through all continents. Those who practiced these new and exciting ways of doing science were not an explicit group, and included trained scientists and engineers, students and amateurs. Biohacking can be seen as analogous to computer software hacking culture, where there are white hats, rebels, and the revolutionizers.
What is biohacking all about?
There are a vast number of definitions and their associated nuances floating around amongst both the scientific and non-scientific community for what the umbrella term biohacking means. I think Allesandro Defanti describes it best in his 2013 book Biohackers. The Politics of Science:
“Life scientists whose practices exhibit a remix of cultures that update a more traditional science ethos with elements coming from hacking and free software.”
There is often a lot of confusion when it comes to differentiating between genetic engineering and synthetic biology. It is imperative to understand these two concepts to understand how they overlap in biohacking practices. Genetic engineering is the manipulation of genes by using biotechnology, whereas synthetic biology is a multidisciplinary area of research that seeks to create new biological parts, devices, and systems, or to redesign systems that are already found in nature. (Often not connected to HUMAN genetic engineering but instead microbial genetic engineering.)
There are mainly two types of biohacking. The boring kind, which includes maximising nutrient uptake and following all medical health advice, which bleeds into traditional medicine. Under this would fall nutrigenomics – how the food you eat interacts with your genes – and grinder – a subculture of the biohacking community that sees the entire human body as ‘hackable’.
Then there is the exciting kind: DIY biology. This includes genetic engineering, the altering of the genetic makeup of an organism, taking control of your body with engineered technologies . Biohackers are not satisfied with the brevity of life. Even though the average life expectancy of humans has increased dramatically over the past 100 years , this is not good enough for them. They chase the idea that humans should be thriving, rather than simply surviving.
A great example of this was shown by a biohacking team from California, USA, Science for the masses, in 2015 when they formulated a simple chemical mixture of a chlorophyll analog (called Chlorin e6). They made it for the intended use of inducing night vision, and dribbled a small amount of the solution into biochemistry researcher Gabriel Licina’s eyes . After this, they did some tests. To explain what happened simply, they had given the test subject the ability to ‘see nearby objects in low light conditions.’
Did this biohacking group give their team member superpowers? Yes and no. While this experiment was for research purposes only, they proved a point that it is possible to perform safe biohacking experiments outside a lab and produce scientifically relevant results, given you have the technical know-how and scientific expertise. The effects of this ‘superpower’ lasted for a few hours. This technology could help sufferers of night blindness, night-shift workers, drivers, and the list goes on .
Who is the biohacker, Josiah Zayner?
Josiah Zayner is a famous member of the biohacking community, which comprises of do-it-yourself biology biohackers. For Zayner, this means genetically modifying his body and seeking out desired changes through controlled molecular processes . You can think of genetic engineering like zooming into the DNA of individual body cells, and making cuts, insertions, deletions, and editing the DNA to do something else, or to not do anything at all.
Zayner has a notable résumé, having worked at The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and boasting a PhD in biophysics . He is not your typical backyard genetic-engineering scientist though, and he has a solid foundation of scientific understanding and industry experience. Zayner, and thousands of others who have been inspired by him, believe that all people should have the right to explore and edit their own genetics. When biohacking was first introduced into the mainstream, it was thought that it would be nothing more than a disappearing, non-scientific fad – no one could have anticipated the impact it would have on the world of science and bioethics today .
Where is biohacking today?
Zayner and his company, the Open Discovery Institute (ODIN), have documented many novel and questionable endeavours in the synthetic biology space.
The most notable including making kits to make glow-in-the-dark beer, genetically engineering skin colour to change, and transplanting entire microbiomes .
The ODIN currently sells DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kits, along with other DIY and ‘no experience needed’ kits.
Zayner constantly finds himself at the forefront of media attention when he creates buzz and shock value from his public DIY biology stunts. In one notable video , at the 2017 SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco, USA, Zayner can be seen injecting himself with DNA which would act as a gene therapy in his body. He synthesized the solution in the injection using CRISPR1 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a powerful tool for gene editing. In the video, one can hear the audience quickly transition from dispersed chatter and laughing to pin-drop silence as they watch Zayner slowly inject the CRISPR into his arm. Zayner claims that he injected himself with ‘muscle genes’ to allow him to get ‘bigger muscles’ through disrupting the myostatin gene, which inhibits myogenesis2.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States issued one month after his live stream a warning that it is illegal to sell DIY gene therapy products with the intention of being used on humans . Moreover, an investigation into Zayner, which ended in September of 2019, was sparked by complaints that he was practicing medicine without a license .
What are the risks of biohacking?
You might be shaking your head in agreement with Zayner’s opposition, but what is the actual risk of this technology? If thousands of people are doing this every day in their so-called ‘garage labs,’ what is the appropriate level of concern?
Technicalities of the science aside, there is an important ethical risk analysis that must be considered when dealing with DIY biology, body hacking, nutrigenomics3, and self-experimentation. If these DIY gene technologies have the ability to affect or disrupt the germ line4 for instance, such modifications may be impossible to reverse or stop and could pose dire threats to future generations. Since these types of experiments are taking place outside of labs and other controlled environments, they cannot be regulated and observed, and their outcomes cannot be quantified properly or reviewed . This can be seen as an unethical practice because there is a space being made for people to explore these technologies with no safety nets or trained personnel present.
There is a strong apprehension from many medical experts about DIY biology telling people not to inject anything they don’t know into their bodies. That is the polar opposite of a statement that another famous biohacker – Aaron Traywick – made when he claimed people should be allowed to inject themselves with genetically modified solutions that they know nothing about . If a DIY biohacker experiences an adverse reaction and needs to be hospitalized, not knowing what they just injected into their bloodstream will not bode well for the emergency care regimen.
Eleonore Pauwels, a bioethicist at the Wilson Center, wrote about the rise of citizen bioscience, and had this so say about the practice and Zayner :
“Like Zayner, I share the goal of empowering citizens with different abilities and resources to understand and shrewdly act upon the complex information contained in their genes. Yet I fear that without a robust structure for conducting risk assessment, self-experimentation using untested gene therapies will transfer the burden of weighing complex risk-benefit trade-offs to individuals at their own cost and peril.”
When things turn sour
Things seemed like they were getting worse when infamous biohacker, Aaron Traywick, Ascendance Biomedical’s theatrical CEO, injected himself with untested herpes treatment, which prompted Zayner to publicly say that ‘things were getting out of hand.’
“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner had told the Atlantic, “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually.” 
When it comes to biohacking, the stakes are high, and there are no do-overs. One bad experiment could translate into the last experiment you will ever do.
This naturally prompts questions about how these practices should be regulated.
The co-founder of Counter Culture Labs – a DIY biology lab in California, USA – Patrik D'haeseleer believes that it is not realistic to enforce regulations on people who carry out DIY biology experiments at home. He also says that flexibility will be needed if the DIY biology community is to be expanded. .
Not all bad
There are ways to do synthetic biology and genetic engineering right, and these ways are exemplified by iGEM teams through the iGEM foundation who hosts the International Genetically Modified Machine Competition. Students who compete, tackle issues using biohacking, synthetic biology, and genetic engineering. The standards of ethics at these competitions are extremely high. The iGEM Vice President for Safety and Security, Piers Millett, says that teams must consider all facets of their projects, including human practices, sustainability and ethics. “iGEM often makes use of technologies right on the cutting edge of what’s feasible. That means that often regulators and oversight bodies haven’t had the chance to think about those technologies”, “Each project is reviewed for safety and security risks - making sure we do not cause harm to our community or the societies with which we interact,” Millet said in a personal communication, collected by Elizabeth Fernandez at Forbes.
The way forward
Is biohacking just a rebranded version of alternative medicine, or is it a threat to our future generations? Is this yet another example of legislation needing to play a catch-up game with innovation? Zayner and I can agree on one thing at least: science is intrinsically elitist. There are reasons for this, with associated pros and cons, and Zayner has a vision to make science accessible to everyone. While an idealistic concept, there is a reason people dedicate their entire lives to the field and why the products of scientific discovery are held tightly on a leash. It is all about the execution, which Zayner himself has realised that his might have been poor at first.
One could argue that biohacking itself is elitist, made for people with time and cash to burn, and with medical safety nets to catch them if they fail – a sentiment shared by Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology at Columbia University.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the race to develop an effective vaccine, Zayner has taken it into his own hands to produce a vaccine to test in humans earlier than recommended, in the process hoping to produce a viable vaccine quicker than major pharmaceutical companies. He promises to livestream the event of injecting himself with his vaccine . This highly anticipated event will undoubtedly change the course biohacking regulation and legislation. If Zayner can live up to his promise of making a viable vaccine accessible to everyone, this may just prove to be a strong point in favour of DIY biology with fewer restrictions and less regulation, or perhaps with the overhaul of these entirely.
At the end of the day, Zayner, through his company The ODIN, is pushing the limits of human innovation and morality, and he has to have a plan to make sure no one gets left behind, or else, he will become the very thing he swore he was fighting against.
Would you inject yourself with something made in a ‘garage lab’ even if it has been tested to be safe for use.
What is your biggest concern about rouge biohackers and what they will experiment with?
Would you trust a vaccine made by a biohacker-owned lab, just as much as if it were from a reputable pharmaceutical company?
Do you think the general public should have access to DIY Crispr kits?
Let us know your thoughts and takes on the topic in the comments section down below! We are more than thrilled to hear back from you!
Read more about Rahil and his involvement in SynthEthics in the latest issue of the Newcastillian – Digital Magazine: https://newcastillian.co.za/2020/08/05/rahil-samlal-from-st-doms-science-buff-to-joining-international-biology-team/
If you wish to join our international team, you can submit your application via www.stempool.net/ambassadors
1 CRISPR is associated with a Cas protein which acts like a molecular scissors to cut DNA at desired sites and allow it to be edited.
2 Muscle growth and differentiation.
3 The study of the effects of food and food constituents on gene expression, and how genetic variations affect the nutritional environment.
4 Gametes, eggs and sperm, used by sexually reproducing organisms to pass on genes from one generation to next.
1. How biohackers are trying to upgrade their brains, their bodies — and human nature
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2. Roser, M., Ortiz-Ospina, E. and Ritchie, H.
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3. This Biohacker Used Eyedrops To Give Himself Temporary Night Vision
This Biohacker Used Eyedrops To Give Himself Temporary Night Vision (2020). Available at: https://io9.gizmodo.com/this-biohacker-used-eyedrops-to-give-himself-temporary-1694016390 (Accessed: 29 July 2020)
4. A Review on Night Enhancement Eyedrops Using Chlorin e6
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7. A biohacker injected himself with a DIY herpes treatment in front of a live audience
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8. This Startup Wants People to Inject Themselves With Untested Drugs
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13.A Biohacker Regrets Publicly Injecting Himself With CRISPR
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14.Is DIY Kitchen CRISPR A Class Issue?
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16. DIY vaccine maker aims to beat pharma to a COVID-19 shot—and he'll start by injecting himself
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Safety - igem.org
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