Meet the biohacker using CRISPR to teach everyone gene editing


Josiah Zayner thinks everyone should be able to change their DNA. For us, the frogs are a way to teach people actual genetic engineering and gene therapy. Without harming an organism. The step right before people doing genetic modification on humans, if they wanted to. Josiah’s a very controversial figure. He’s got a scientific background,
with a PhD in biophysics. And he spent two years as
a research fellow at NASA. But he left to start a company called The ODIN. He sells kits to help anyone modify organisms
for as cheap as 30 dollars. That’s because he wants genetic engineering to be decentralized, in the hands and homes of everyone. 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. Cause the problem isn’t going to be like, oh man, that person has way too many enhancements or doesn’t. The problem is going to be,
is this an equal playing field? Does everybody have access to this technology? It’s a provocative idea. It’s also dangerous. And it’s becoming possible because of CRISPR, a gene editing technology that can find and cut a sequence of DNA in a cell and replace it with another. It can achieve in days what used to take months, with precision and at a fraction of the cost. If it wasn’t for CRISPR, I don’t think
my company would be possible. A few years ago, George Church, a pioneer of CRISPR, signed on as an advisor to The ODIN. But even he’s acknowledged the risks
inherent in DIY genetic engineering. Leading researchers say the technology is still too new to use on humans without potentially harmful consequences, and that the way Josiah promotes it is reckless. This is Josiah Zayner. Coming straight to you from my garage lab. And I want to talk to you about how to genetically engineer a human being. Josiah’s famous in the world of biohackers, people who experiment on their own bodies
and other organisms outside of traditional labs and institutions. He’s gotten a lot of media attention
for his very public DIY stunts. Like when he injected himself with CRISPR while giving a talk at a synthetic biology conference. This will modify my muscle genes
to give me bigger muscles. Did that just quiet everybody? Sorry. The month after Josiah’s injection,
the FDA issued a warning that, for safety reasons, it’s illegal to sell gene therapy products
for use on humans. Earlier that year, German authorities restricted imports of The ODIN’s CRISPR kit, reporting that it was contaminated
with disease-causing bacteria. Despite the warnings, The ODIN has sold tens of thousands of CRISPR experiments. Don’t tell anybody, but these party lights
are actually really special. We use them for DNA visualization,
or fluorescence visualization. 50 cent lights. And they work just as well. You can’t make an effective human gene therapy from just what’s in these kits. You’d need more skills and supplies. If someone decided to inject themselves with what they can produce from the kit, they risk a potentially deadly reaction. So if you don’t purify it properly, you’re just basically injecting yourself with something that can cause an immune reaction. The majority of people probably won’t,
you know, it won’t kill them. But, you know, that’s just the majority of people. The ODIN started selling kits in 2016. Last year, Josiah says, they made over $500,000. He insists that by making gene editing available to as many people as possible, he’s also helping to advance the science. What are we all so afraid of? And I think that question kind of comes down to like we’re afraid to change what it means to be human. Like a clear cut definition of a human being
is like male, female. They have kids and procreate. And once you start straying outside those lines, people get more and more uncomfortable. And I think genetic engineering
is still at that place where like, everybody thinks it’s going
to cause the zombie apocalypse. Sometimes I still am afraid. But it’s not a fear of, like, something
bad happening necessarily. It’s more of a fear of that, like, you can’t control it. Josiah’s public CRISPR injection
doesn’t seem to have done much to him. He doesn’t regret doing it, but says he was surprised by the reaction
he got in the months that followed. So I’m gonna shoot to do half of it
on one side of my stomach, and the other half on the other side. After I injected myself with CRISPR, the next biohacker to inject themselves was like a month later. I thought it would be a year, years. And he admits his stunt might encourage people to do something dangerous, but is still wrestling with his own responsibility. People are like, “Oh I want to inject myself with all this stuff, even though I have no idea what I’m doing or what I’m injecting myself with.” And, I don’t know, maybe that’s good or bad. But like you never want people to get hurt, or you never want your actions to have a negative impact on people.

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