Josiah Zayner: The man who hacked his own DNA
Self-proclaimed biohacker Josiah Zayner’s ‘illegal’ experiment to engineer himself is risky yet life-affirming
In the first week of October, Josiah Zayner created quite a stir at a biotech conference, SynBioBeta 2017, in San Francisco when he injected his left forearm with the gene-editing tool CRISPR in a bid to grow bigger muscles. The audience watched him with a dose of scepticism and amazement, but Zayner seemed to know what he was doing.
Muscle growth is hampered by Myostatin, and research shows that when you get rid of this protein, your muscles grow stronger. Zayner knew this, given that he not only has a doctorate from the department of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the University of Chicago, but is also the founder and chief executive officer of The ODIN—a company whose goal is to make “consumer synthetic biology products”, including the controversial do-it-yourself (DIY) gene engineering kit.
What prompted Zayner? “There is something greater than myself, and that is the ability to use genetic engineering and CRISPR technology for good, to help people through medical treatments or engineering or crops. In order to show people how accessible this technology is, I needed to make a statement by attempting to engineer myself,” he says in an email interview.
This was not Zayner’s first such experiment at biohacking, or editing one’s own genes. In February 2016, he had performed a full-body microbiome (genes of all our microbes) transplant on himself, including a faecal transplant, to experiment with microbiome engineering. “The experiment was both a scientific and medical success. The DNA sequencing I did confirmed that I successfully changed the bacteria in my gut and medically my gut has honestly never felt better in my life. Blood in my stool went away and never returned, I don’t suffer from diarrhoea and other issues on a daily or weekly basis. Though I don’t know if I am cured or if there is a cure, I sure feel like it was a cure!”insists Zayner.
He now wants to make genetic engineering accessible to everyone. “Genes and genetics are what make us human, and I guess I am a philosopher at heart and want to understand what makes us human,” he says.
Zayner, however, was not born with a love for genetics as a career. He would have ended up an information technology professional if he hadn’t lost his job as a “network engineer and programmer” at Motorola when the dot-com bubble burst in early 2000. “That sucked. No severance either,” Zayner says on his website. Just 19, he went on to graduate in plant biology and do his postgraduation in cell and molecular biology from the Southern Illinois University in the US, where he also “spent lots of time rock climbing”.
While working for his doctorate, he studied how “light-activated proteins function thermodynamically and how to develop them as optogenetic (a technique that uses a combination of light and genetic engineering to control the cells of the brain) tools.” Zayner owes his creativity, in part, to his ability to “take information and ideas and look at them from a different perspective than someone normally would”. His PhD and training in biophysics allowed him, for instance, to “look at genetic and protein engineering from both a biological and physics point of view”.
But he decided not to pursue postdoctoral research after his PhD, which he received in 2013. Instead, he “wrote a ridiculous fellowship application about using synthetic biology to help us colonize Mars”, which got him the position of a visiting research scientist at the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). “My job at Nasa was pretty serious. I was working on developing methods that astronauts could use with materials available to them, like Martian soil to build structures. The system I was developing would use engineered bacteria that interacted with different molecules to strengthen and harden the soil into bricks,” recalls Zayner.
Around the same time, he began connecting with other biohackers and launched The ODIN. He quit Nasa in 2016, and launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for a DIY CRISPR kit. That year, he sold $200,000 (around Rs1.2 crore now) worth of products.
The ODIN has six employees currently “and they are all scientists, though I might be biased because I believe that someone doesn’t need to have a PhD to be a scientist. Half the employees don’t have a bachelor’s degree in science but can do science on the level of a master’s or PhD”. Zayner believes the future is going to be dominated by genetic engineering and “consumer genetic design will be a big part of that”.
At The ODIN, researchers are making that happen by developing kits and tools that allow anyone to make unique and usable organisms at home or in a lab—or anywhere else. George Church, professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School and director of PersonalGenomes.org, is an adviser to Zayner’s company.
Zayner believes this “technology (CRISPR) can’t just be in the hands of wealthy corporations, it is too powerful and needs to be made available to everyone”. People with no experience, according to Zayner, can use these kits as they have “examples of experiments on microorganisms and detailed instructions”. Some of these DIY gene-engineering kits, he adds, have also been shipped to India.
CRISPR, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR-Cas9 are terms that are broadly used to refer to systems that can help researchers permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms. According to The ODIN website, most CRISPR systems comprise “the Cas9 protein which cuts the DNA; the tracrRNA and crRNA, which when synthetically combined are called a ‘guide RNA’ but also called sgRNA(synthetic guide RNA) or gRNA; and the template for repair if doing homology (existence of shared ancestry between a pair of structures, or genes) directed repair”.
However, there are ethical concerns when it comes to the use of CRISPR, especially when humans are involved. In October, for instance, a computer programmer, Tristan Roberts, became “patient 0” for a plasmid-based (plasmids used to deliver DNA contain genes for antibiotic resistance) genetic therapy to treat HIV. “This therapy, which I injected into my stomach fat, should allow my cells to produce ‘N6’, an anti-body that is incredibly effective at nullifying HIV,” he wrote on Medium.com. The therapy was the result of collaboration between independent researchers and Ascendance Biomedical. Roberts is yet to see any positive results.
The US food and drug administration (FDA), which considers any use of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in humans to be gene therapy, rules that the sale of DIY kits to produce gene therapies for self-administration is illegal. “The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) has extended its 2003 ban on gene doping to include all forms of gene editing.” It already bans the use of genetically-modified cells and gene therapy if they have “the potential to enhance sport performance”. In Germany, biohacking is now illegal, and someone doing experiments outside a licensed lab could face a €50,000 (around Rs38.2 lakh) fine or three years in prison.
Zayner is unfazed. “I guess it doesn’t matter if I agree or disagree with the FDA because they make the rules. I think that the FDA is trying to protect people but I believe that there are still ways to work in or around the system to still be able to experiment safely and successfully with human genetic modification,” he says.
As for the critics who believe that his methods are unscientific and harmful, Zayner says, “I have written out the exact protocol and made available all information and DNA sequences used at Josiahzayner.com, including scientific papers that I based my work on.” He acknowledges that he “definitely” has critics but adds that “I have yet to receive any sound scientific criticism that points out any serious scientific issues that would make the experiment not work”.
Zayner, for instance, does not have a problem with so-called designer babies (human embryos that are genetically modified to produce desirable traits). He argues, “Sex is the worst form of genetic engineering and we allow it to wreak havoc on the lives of people. It causes unpredictable genetic changes in the embryo that can lead to harmful traits. I support and champion the ability to alleviate suffering, and if that means so-called ‘designer babies’, then I support it.”
He believes the question is less about issues like “do you support cosmetic changes?” or “how do you stop it even if you don’t support it?” He concludes, “I don’t think you can stop it and so instead we should figure out ways to make it accessible and safe.”
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