No Self-Editing: Biohacker Josiah Zayner Can’t Stop Living Out Loud

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Gene editing has arrived. Of the various forms of the technology, CRISPR-Cas9 is the easiest to use, and it’s already showing up in summer camps and school science labs near you. That would be middle schools.

When everyone can edit an organism’s genes, how will the world change? Should we be worried? National security officials say yes.

Should we also be hopeful? A handful of drug companies have either begun or will soon begin human clinical studies of medicines that directly alter a patient’s genes.

Despite all this activity, biohackers like Josiah Zayner think the world is moving too slowly. They are pushing the boundaries of do-it-yourself gene editing, for medicine, for exploration, and for fun, through home CRISPR kits and audacious displays of self-experimentation. They have instant access to a global audience through social media, and they like to use it.

Zayner has publicly documented a few home-brewed experiments—including green-glowing beer and a replacement of his gut microbiome—and he has helped develop a do-it-yourself treatment for a Norwegian woman who was told she had incurable lung cancer. He has even helped create biology-inspired multimedia art.

But nothing has gained him as much attention as a public self-injection stunt last fall, which made him the first person known to submit to direct gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9. (Indirect editing—taking out patients’ cells to edit, then giving them back—has reportedly taken place in Chinese medical trials.)

Zayner, who lives and works in Oakland, CA, has become a leading voice of the do-it-yourself biohacking movement—a voice that can be brash, thoughtful, impassioned, and often leavened with self-doubt. With legal, ethical, and (of course) plenty of scientific questions yet to be resolved, Zayner sometimes thinks he has answers. Sometimes he just wants to ask more questions.

Stanford University law and bioethics professor Hank Greely once joined Zayner onstage for a moderated debate about biohacking. “He seems remarkably sane in person,” says Greely. “He is certainly dedicated to the idea that he can change the world through DIY. I’m not convinced, but in person he’s more willing to see the pluses and minuses of both sides.”

Zayner’s self-doubt has come more to the forefront recently. After Aaron Traywick, the CEO of biohacker group Ascendance Biomedical, dropped his pants and injected himself with an untested, unregulated herpes treatment last month (and livestreamed it, naturally), Zayner slammed the spectacle on his Facebook page. His vitriol has spurred a lawsuit from Traywick, filed February 8, claiming that Zayner’s “jealous rant included defamatory statements.” (Representing himself, Traywick is also suing the news site Gizmodo for what he considers defamatory coverage. He wants at least $250 million in damages.)

In the same post, however, Zayner also questioned aloud the complicity of his own actions and antics: “Looking at my actions in the past, which unfortunately did include a public injection in a semi-ridiculous manner, I want to apologize, in that I could have inspired people to think I was doing things on a whim when I was not.”

Like many of Zayner’s declarations, in person or in writing, there are more layers here to unpack. In an interview last month with Xconomy, he said it was the public response to his self-injection that made him rethink his actions: “I regret the outcome, but I don’t regret doing the experiment.”

He has pledged to suspend his CRISPR human experimentation. No more self-editing for the time being. But a video outlining the process remains available. And he has no plans to take down the Web page that outlines the instructions. “I don’t believe that hiding knowledge is the best way to prevent people from doing stupid stuff,” he said. “On the contrary, I think the way to prevent people from doing stupid stuff is to educate them. So no, I will not be removing that.”


Like Zayner’s thoughts, his looks tend toward the protean. His shock of dark hair is sometimes buzzed on the sides, sometimes dyed blue or white. Facial hair one month, a different configuration the next, or just the stubble of someone who rarely has time to shave. He is of average height and well-built, a former high school athlete who has kept his form but added the un-jock-like accoutrements of multiple ear piercings, plus ones in the nose and lip for good measure.

Perhaps you already knew about Zayner injecting his forearm last fall with CRISPR-Cas9 to see if he could knock out myostatin, the gene that regulates muscle growth. (So far, it hasn’t worked. He says now he didn’t really expect anything to happen.)

Perhaps you know him as the guy whose CRISPR gene-editing kits, available online for anyone to purchase, have drawn the notice of the FDA.

Or perhaps you know him as the NASA scientist who in 2015 ran a Craigslist ad in the persona of a billionaire seeking to alter his DNA to avoid criminal detection. The ad created a stir before the prank was revealed.

About that prank: Zayner explained later that he wanted people to consider the implications of gene editing on a criminal investigation. If there was incriminating DNA at the crime scene, could the defense argue it had been engineered? “It’s totally going to be a weird future,” Zayner said.

If by “weird” we mean the total democratization of gene editing—available to anyone as easily as software and hardware can be assembled in a garage—we’re not nearly there yet. (Especially with human editing.)

As the tools of biology become more distributed, the availability and ease of DIY use will to some extent hinge upon regulation. Ultimately, though, the boundaries that individuals set for themselves may matter more to the field. Which is why a guy like Zayner is important to pay attention to. Voices like his—curious, informal, free-flowing, and definitely not peer-reviewed—will rise and try to make sense of the mad technological scramble, just as loudly as the academic or industry expert opining from on high. Indeed, Zayner often grapples out loud with questions of risk, ethics, and personal autonomy.

He is also, for now, still selling DIY gene-editing kits. His business is called The Odin, and the kits are for tinkering with the DNA of bacteria. (The top-shelf item is $2,149, but now on sale for $1,999.)

The FDA issued a warning about DIY gene therapy last fall—this was after Zayner’s self-injection, and before Traywick’s pants-down injection of his herpes “vaccine and cure”—but Zayner says he hasn’t felt pressure from regulators. He continues to sell a $20 CRISPR-Cas9 tool to knock out human myostatin—the same tool that formed the basis of his self-injection.

“We changed the disclaimer to be more clear,” Zayner said. “The original was ‘not intended for human use’ and people took that as a joke, as if we were saying that to get around the FDA. But actually no, the strains won’t work no matter how hard you try.”

When I asked Zayner last fall about his CRISPR self-injection and the potential for encouraging reckless behavior, he replied with a question and took off … Next Page »

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