Josiah Zayner, 36, recently made headlines by becoming the first person to use the revolutionary gene-editing tool Crispr to try to change their own genes. Part way through a talk on genetic engineering, Zayner pulled out a syringe apparently containing DNA and other chemicals designed to trigger a genetic change in his cells associated with dramatically increased muscle mass. He injected the DIY gene therapy into his left arm, live-streaming the procedure on the internet.
The former Nasa biochemist, based in California, has become a leading figure in the growing “biohacker” movement, which involves loose collectives of scientists, engineers, artists, designers, and activists experimenting with biotechnology outside of conventional institutions and laboratories.
Despite warnings from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that selling gene therapy products without regulatory approval is illegal, Zayner sells kits that allow anyone to get started with basic genetic engineering techniques, and has published a free guide for others who want to take it further and experiment on themselves.
Was administering a dose of Crispr on yourself an experiment, or a stunt to show what amateur scientists/biohackers can do?
Both. The technical feasibility of what I did is not under question – researchers have done this many times, in all sorts of animals. But there’s a barrier – people are afraid of it, and just talk about the possibilities in humans. I wanted to break that down, to say “Hey look, the tools are inexpensive, and somebody with a bit of knowledge can actually go through with these experiments”.
I chose to start with the gene for myostatin [a protein that regulates muscle growth], because it has been extensively studied, and it produces an obvious change if it has worked.