Article Thumbnail

The NASA Genius Biohacker Trying to Bring Gene Editing to Your Living Room

A conversation with Josiah Zayner, the renegade, DIY geneticist who’s gladly experimenting on himself in order to achieve his goal of ending human suffering

Josiah Zayner downs a shot of scotch and begins his presentation. His audience is roughly 30 attendees from the SynBioBeta SF conference and a digital crowd on livestream. The reckless bad boy of genetic engineering has come to talk about CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene-editing technology, which since 2013 has revolutionized our genetic toolkit. It’s one of the single greatest human inventions ever, up there with the wheel, lightbulbs, refrigeration and the internet.

When Zayner speaks about the limitless potential of CRISPR, he sounds like a young teacher eager to excite his students about what they can learn from history — only he’s speaking about the future. He lifts up a vial of edited DNA. It contains Cas9 (CRISPR associated protein 9), an enzyme featuring edited DNA from the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. His vial of DNA is just like the ones he’s handed out to the gathered crowd, which Zayner says they can take home and use to alter their own cells.

An audience member asks Zayner why he encourages people to attempt genetic experiments: Why doesn’t he just try it on himself? It’s a suspiciously perfect set-up. In response, he says, “Let’s do it.” Unbeknownst to the crowd, he’s about to perform the “first attempt at human CRISPR gene editing.” Truth be told, though, he’s experimented on himself before, he’s just never performed a CRISPR experiment like this live, in front of an audience.

Zayner reaches over and pulls out a syringe, inserting the spike of it into the vial. He extracts the DNA mixture as he explains to the crowd that it will “modify my muscle genes to give me bigger muscles.” It’s a myostatin knockout, he says, designed to disrupt how a cell’s myostatin genes regulate and inhibit muscle growth — i.e., if the gene is “knocked-out” the affected muscle cells would never stop growing.

He exhales a tiny welp of pain as the needle tears a hole in his left arm. The crowd applauds. The showman says, wryly, “I don’t know why people don’t try it,” and then promises, “I’ll let you know how it works out.” (He’s the first to admit this localized gene therapy is unlikely to do much because the concentration isn’t great enough to create visible effects.)

There’s a lot of P.T. Barnum in his presentation, which can be easily sneered at, or ridiculed. Stanford University law and bioethics professor Hank Greely debated Zayner and remarked that the younger scientist “seems remarkably sane — in person.” Still, it’s difficult to get people thinking, let alone excited, about science, and Zayner does that — he just has to rely on theatrics and sideshow hype to do so, which again, has been met with plenty of derision. His livestreamed CRISPR injection stunt, for example, was met by waves of haters, legit science community pushback, as well as accusations of ethical impropriety and charges of irresponsibility. There’s also been many ambitious imitators, like the “guy who injected himself with a DIY HIV treatment on Facebook Live.

In fairness, however, it’s tough to imitate him, if for no other reason than his own self-experimentation is difficult to top. He’s quick to joke with me that he’s the world’s first human-animal hybrid, as he recalls that he once injected himself with jellyfish genes to see if he could glow-in-the-dark. In an op-ed about his work, Zayner later admitted, “though my skin didn’t fluoresce like a jellyfish, DNA testing showed it worked and the experiment showed me what was possible.” When Gizmodo asked him about it, Zayner explained how, “green fluorescent protein doesn’t really interact with anything in your cells, it just goes in there and fluoresces. The crazy thing about this one is it’s actually going to modify the metabolism of my cells a little bit, which is a little scary.” He’s also tried to use gene therapy to change the color of his skin.

To give the masses access to genetic modification and start his lowkey biohacker revolution, Zayner opened, a biotech startup and science supply company. He calls it the “only consumer synthetic biology and genetic-engineering company.” It exists, in his words, “to get genetic engineering in the hands of consumers; to let them do, basically, whatever they want with it.” This business model, obviously, frightens lots of people. There are legitimate concerns from legitimate corners that Zayner’s technology will one day lead to some madman designing a killer virus, releasing it and wiping out humanity. (Also of concern: He’s made a step-by-step video tutorial to teach others to follow in his footsteps.)

But do we have reasons to worry about this potential? What exactly does Zayner see as the risks and rewards now that we’re monkeying around with the code of life? And what exactly does he want all this DIY gene editing to accomplish? To answer those questions and more, I spoke with Zayner from his lab, via Google Hangout, while his employees, sans the traditional white lab coats, worked in the background.

Would you agree that genetic engineering is like a toothbrush? That is, a toothbrush can be used for dental health. It can also be turned into a shiv in prison. It’s all about how you use it, right?
Exactly! It’s intent, right? That’s the most amazing thing about genetic engineering — just like computers and computer programming, if you want to be creative with it, you can, or if you want to be destructive, you can. Whatever you wanna do, you can do with it.

Why are you so willing to go beyond where academics and mainstream science are willing to tread?
I had a rough childhood. My mom’s first husband was abusive. My step-dad was abusive. They both left. I didn’t really have a dad. I didn’t really have anybody to… My mom was working all the time, so we had nobody to look to for help, or anything like that. You had to learn to take care of yourself. You had to learn to fend for yourself in the world. That creates this ultra self-reliance where you’re just like, “I’m gonna do it by myself. Nobody else can do it better than I can.”

Elon Musk recently said we need to rapidly become cyborgs to overcome an existential threat from artificial intelligence. Does he have a point, or would you argue that gene modification is the better answer than becoming half-human cyborgs?
The thing is, it’s so easy to modify our genetics. Like you can literally inject yourself with some DNA. We’ve been doing gene therapy on humans since the late 1990s. Not only that, people don’t think about the way vaccines work. What your body does when it recognizes a vaccine is it actually modifies your own genetics. It stores that information genetically in your DNA, through this process called VDJ recombination. So then you can have an immunological response 10 years from now. It’s not because there’s still these proteins, antigens, floating around in your blood. No, it was stored in your DNA, so your body can call on it whenever it’s needed.

We’ve been genetically-modified for who knows how long. It’s been something that’s just part of who we are, part of our culture. We’ll do more of that long before we implant cyborg eyes or integrate a neural lace in our brains.

Your business,, is located adjacent to the Silicon Valley. You rented a three-bedroom home in Oakland, and for $5,000, you set up a lab. You have four lab benches, lots of incubators, centrifuges, even cloning capabilities. What do you tell your neighbors about your next-door gene-editing lab?
It’s funny, because in the Bay Area, people don’t care. Our landlord, he comes over all the time. He comes inside. Whatever. He doesn’t care. We’re in Oakland right now, and as long as you’re paying your rent, they just expect somebody to run a company out of their house. Every once in a while, we get people staring in, like, “What’s going on in there?” But not too many people are afraid of it. It’s just become the culture here, like everybody and their brother is probably trying to create a startup, you know? [Laughs]

To do push forward the conversation on genetic engineering, you spark publicity with what many call reckless self-experimentation. You’ve experimented with fecal transplants, and you famously injected yourself with jellyfish genes to foster muscle growth in your forearm. You keep stoking the conversation with these brazen acts of self-experimentation, but how long can you do that for?
People don’t understand that what I’m trying to do is teach people genetic engineering. Teach people science. Get people involved. If I was Google, I’d spend $100 million and put an ad in everybody’s social media feed, make all these videos, just bombard people with them. Unfortunately, I’m not Google. I don’t have $100 million. As somebody who’s trying to be an activist for genetic engineering, I have to be provocative. Being provocative: That’s my $100 million. And it’s well thought out.

Like, these things I do, I don’t just like sit down and act like, “Okay, tomorrow I’m gonna inject myself.” No, they’re well-planned. Like, the [jellyfish] injection. I probably spent a year doing experiments beforehand. The fecal transplant? I read tons of studies and built up a plan, built up a protocol and a guide. I tracked like 50 different things that were going on inside my body. I gave $5,000 to sequence all the bacteria and all this other stuff. I tried to be as thorough as possible on all these things.

I bring science to it, but as an activist, as somebody who’s trying to get people to pay attention, you have to be provocative. People will hate and talk trash. But people who don’t like it, I don’t think they’re my audience. Those aren’t the people who are gonna do genetic engineering on their own. They don’t wanna create the future. Those people are the people fighting against change.

The people who do listen to me, they’re so pumped and psyched about this stuff. You can imagine how many people contact me and tell me about stuff they’re working on, what they’re trying to do. Even if half the people who say they’re gonna inject themselves with DNA do so in the next year, it’s gonna be ridiculous. I’m not saying anybody should inject themselves with DNA. It’s not a smart idea if you don’t know what you’re doing. But I think it was William Gibson, he wrote Neuromancer and other books, who said, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Did becoming a father make you a little more reluctant to self-experiment?
I’m kinda done with self-experimentation in general. I mean, there’s one project I’m really interested and want to try, that I think is really fun — it’s a DNA gene therapy that gets you high.

You know how endorphins make people feel a runner’s high? It’s actually just a small peptide protein you can make on DNA. People always think of DNA and gene therapy in terms of medical intervention. I’m trying to think of it more like, “What are we going to do with it in the future? How can we take something that’s a sci-fi idea and actually do it?” So that’d be one experiment I’d be willing to test on myself. It would be fun and interesting.

Would you just be high all the time?
No, when you do DNA therapies like that, generally, they’re shorter term.

Did you see the Irish guy who’d been injecting his own sperm into his arm? For 18 months, he shoved his sperm into his veins like a heroin addict. Why? Because he thought it might cure his back pain. He thought his sperm could be turned into like some kind of DIY pluripotent stem-cell therapy, or something. The thing is, he didn’t tell anybody until he finally had to see a doctor about something else, and they noticed a hard lump in his arm. Is this also going to be the future?
[Laughs] But you know what? He could have injected something like that and found it actually did work. That’s the crazy thing.

You make it explicitly clear that you don’t sell products for people to genetically modify themselves. But you do sell the know-how. It’s similar to the guy who didn’t sell 3D-printed guns, but he uploaded the blueprints for a 3D-printed gun. The feds tried to shut him down, but they failed in court. Along those lines, do you ever worry that something you share or sell could have unintended consequences?
I’m very careful. I try to be a little antagonistic toward the government, but I’m also not against working with them. And I do sometimes. I talk to a lot of people in the government. Even the FBI, and places like that. They have their place in our society, right? They’re there; they exist. We can’t get rid of them. So you have to work with them in some way.

What does the FBI want to know about gene editing?
They’re more interested obviously in who’s doing what and what they’re doing with it. Those are the big questions that everybody is concerned about.

Are they looking at possibilities of it being weaponized? Are they thinking, Oh shit, if someone genetically-engineers a super virus, we’re fucked?
Kind of. But also, people putting out medical treatments that are unapproved and stuff like that, trying to sell unapproved medical treatments. The FDA and people like that are really concerned about that happening. I think people are less concerned about the virus stuff, because there’s a lot of protections in place that limit the scope of what somebody can really do with that.

Do you ever worry that just as we stand on the shoulders of giants, lunatics could stand on your shoulders?
We overestimate how easy it is to do these things. Even if you could make a virus without people knowing it, creating a worldwide pandemic, wiping out a large portion of the population is gonna be… difficult. Influenza is probably one of the worst viruses — or Ebola. But if you look at the number of deaths that actually happen from some of these bad viruses, it’s pretty small. And with influenza, you can’t even convince people to get their flu vaccine. Nowadays, in the modern times, wiping out any large percentage of the population is extremely difficult — with modern sanitation and medical care. I mean, you can’t say it’s never gonna happen. It’s for sure gonna happen, but I imagine it’s probably gonna be more like governments that do this stuff than individuals.

Is that also because we don’t live in a movie where average civilians have access to the sort of labs necessary to weaponize viruses — even with knowledge they’ve gained from gene-editing kits?
Say you wanna create a virus that kills people, one that evades the immune system. Well, you gotta test that. You can’t just make a virus and release it. You’re gonna have to, I don’t know, kidnap homeless people and start testing it on them. Then you have to get rid of the bodies. You’re also gonna have to protect yourself. Because the number one person who’s at risk of dying here is you.

Ah, the bombmaker’s dilemma.
Exactly. So you’re gonna have to have this super-sophisticated facility, where the virus can’t escape and you can’t kill yourself by mistake. You need a lot of money. You need this extremely covert system. Also, you’re probably not gonna be able to do this yourself, you’re gonna need other scientists to help you. And the chances that they’re not gonna rat on you…

You’ve said that a fear of genetic engineering is important. What scares you?
How fast it’s moving. If you had told me six months ago that somebody had created a genetically modified human embryo and turned it into a baby, like what just happened in China, I would have said that there was no way, that it couldn’t happen for at least five to ten years. But it happened last year. That’s crazy.

Everything is moving so fast. It’s scary because it’s taken on a life of its own. Nobody’s in control. You can regulate it; you can not regulate it — it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s following any regulations. That’s a little scary. You have to place your trust in the fact that the technology’s gonna be used for good and people aren’t gonna be scammed. But that’s a lot of trust you gotta place in other human beings.

Sometimes disability activists and members of the disabled community get upset at genetic testing used as a means of correcting a disability. Have you had conversations with people from the disabled community about your work with genetic engineering?
Totally! It’s not saying that anyone is less of a human being, or anything like that. We want a future where no one suffers. There are a lot of medical conditions where people suffer a great deal. I think removing that suffering should be our number one priority.

Human beings can be unique in so many ways. But I think instead of focusing on the ways we’re unique now, we can look to a future where there are new ways we can be unique. Like, what about different skin colors? What about eye colors people have never had before? Hair colors? Human beings want to be unique in so many different ways that I don’t think genetic engineering will lead to a society of people who are similar and everybody who’s different is an outcast. I mainly think of it as a tool to remove suffering.

The scientist from China who just created the first genetically modified babies carried to term, did you celebrate his achievement, or did it cast a negative light on your work?
It’s awesome. It’s one of the coolest things that we’ve done as humans. I know people always bring up Nazis, eugenics and all this weird stuff, but I’m just like, “I’m sure there are some weird people out there, but I don’t know any Nazis working on this stuff. It’s all scientists and people who are trying to better humanity. If Nazis start working on this stuff, then, totally, I’m with you. Let’s make sure they can’t do any of their crazy stuff. But in general, it’s all people who have great intentions and want better things.”

That scientist from China, I think he has the same point-of-view, so we should be excited about what he did. This is the first time in human history that we can overcome our genetics. We’ve been stuck with the genetics we’re born with forever. And that’s just kinda random, right? Some children are born with diseases, sorta randomly. They just have to live with it. Some severely terrible diseases. Why are we okay with that? Why are we okay with people suffering this way? That doesn’t make much sense to me.

To play devil’s advocate, a genetically engineered baby calls into question the authorship of a human being. If you correct for a congenital disease that’s one thing, but if you start to pick too many of the genes of your child, now you’re authoring them. Is there an ethical quandary there? What if the parents are shitheads and pick terrible genes, ones that flatter the parents’ vanity, but do little for their designer child’s greater benefit?
I don’t know. What do you think? I’m interested in other people’s opinions. What do you think about human enhancement, not like medical intervention?

I’m in favor of it personally. But I’m not a parent. I don’t know what it means to wrestle with those questions of authoring your child. You’re a father, what did you consider?
I talked to my partner a little bit about this. Right now, you can screen your children. You have to get IVF, but certain IVF clinics will screen your children for eye color, hair color and stuff like that. And you can screen for sex, right? You can decide if you want a male or female child. Society acts like it’s bad to make these choices. But we have daughter, and I also want to have a son. I’m sure that’s a different experience; I’m sure it’s really interesting and cool. I want to raise a son who’s a great man. I never got to interact with my father, so it would be super cool to be able to have all those experiences with a son that I never got to have with a dad. But if you procreate normally, you have no idea what you’re going to get. And society says it’s weird to go out of your way to choose a child’s sex. But why? Why is it weird?

Could someone use gene editing to transform their identity, like darken their skin or curl their hair? What If someone wants to go full Rachel Dolezal, could they use gene editing to become “transracial?” Or the reverse, what about whitening skin?
I was actually working on a project like this. There’s this one gene called tyrosinase. It’s like the rate-limiting enzyme in melanin production. I was trying to see if I could change the tint of my skin, to see if I could give it a little more darkness. I thought it would be such an amazing social commentary. If people see that you can change skin color with just one gene, they may look at race differently.

What’s the next big challenge for you in this genetic revolution?
The same one — education. It’s true with any sort of movement or new technology, the biggest problem is getting people to understand the technology and know how to use it thoughtfully and creatively. That’s what we’ve been pushing — we started online classes where we have actual scientists from Harvard and other places teaching and helping people learn about genetic engineering and molecular biology. So we want to keep educating people.

My audience is 18 to 35, and I’m 37. If you look above that, that’s where people start to get very dismissive of me. That’s generally all the academics, people like that. But when younger people start to supplant the older generation, my work will probably be a lot more accepted. That’s what I try to focus on. The people who dismiss or hate us, it’s like, “You’re not even our audience. You’re already in the system, and you’re never going to change. I’m not speaking to you. [Laughs] I’m talking to everyone else who isn’t in your position, who isn’t stuck, and is actually trying to push things forward, or keep this place alive.”

To paraphrase that famous Teddy Roosevelt quote, “It’s always those critics who aren’t in the arena.”
“…It’s not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…” [Laughs] Yes.