Biohacking: How a DIY Approach to Biology Can Shape Our Future

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD

In 2017, Josiah Zayner live-streamed himself injecting a gene therapy construct designed to edit the DNA in his muscle cells to give him bigger muscles. This moment was noteworthy because the gene therapy construct had been created entirely by Zayner in his garage laboratory. Such work is called biohacking or DIY biology.

These actions do not come without consequences. He has recently been investigated for practicing medicine without a license, and the state of California recently passed a law to require all such kits to include a notice “stating that the kit is not for self-administration.”

What is Biohacking?
Zayner is not alone; in fact, the biohacking movement is growing across the country. Zayner also sells kits that allow other biohackers to experiment with DNA and gene editing from his website, The Odin. There are also laboratories across the country that allow interested people to have space to conduct biology experiments without having to build a home laboratory.

Biohacking at its core is bringing science out of the laboratories of academia and industry and into grasp of citizen scientists. But the exact definition of what is included in biohacking differs among people. Biohacking includes a diverse variety of science experiments such as tracking of sleep and diet, under-skin implantation of computer chips and other technology, ingestion of “smart drugs” and sub-clinical levels of LSD, transplantation of gut and skin microbiomes, infusion of “young blood” to reverse aging, and genetic modification of bacteria, yeast and human cells.

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Image description: an equipment setup called a “makerbay” in a Hong Kong biohacking makerspace. Image source: Athena Lam/Flickr Creative Commons.

Each type of biohacking brings its own risks and rewards. This blog post will focus on genetic modification of cells using new gene editing techniques such as CRISPR. Advances in gene editing technology over the past five years have made accessible science that was once confined to expensive, high-technology laboratories. For a broader look at CRISPR and gene editing by researchers and bio-hackers, Netflix has a new documentary series, Unnatural Selection.

Benefits of Biohacking
First and foremost, the benefit of biohacking is access to science. Not everyone can afford an advanced degree biology or wants to work full time in a laboratory. Biohacking democratizes science for people who have a passion for learning about the world and how it works. It also has the potential to increase access to medicine. One endeavor, the Open Insulin Project, attempts to find a cheaper and intellectual property-free way to produce and distribute insulin to make it available to people who have a hard time affording the drug.

In addition to access, biohacking communities are also hubs of outreach and education. The laboratory spaces often hold classes and meeting spaces for like-minded individuals to network. There are competitions that bring together student and citizen scientist teams who work on using synthetic biology to create biological solutions to local and international problems.

Biohackers are taking these responsibilities seriously as a whole. The community has even developed its own code of ethics emphasizing open access, transparency, education, safety, environment, and peaceful purposes.

Risks of Biohacking
Although biohacking has many benefits, there are risks of which the world and individual citizen scientists should be aware. Perhaps the largest potential threats are the lack of education and regulation within the biohacking community.

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Image description: two people are gathered at a table containing various types of scientific equipment. Image source: Martin Dittus/Flickr Creative Commons.

While Josiah Zaynor holds a PhD in biopohysics, not all biohackers are so well educated. Community laboratories help with classes and mutual support, but home-based biohackers must rely on their own knowledge and understanding, though websites are available for questions and discussions. Education and outreach to biohackers is also the strategy of the FBI in recent years, though many biohackers are reticent to accept its help. Additionally, while the community does have a code of ethics, there is little formal ethics training in concepts such as informed consent or using animals in research.

Due to the open definition and decentralized structure of biohacking, regulation is almost impossible. Lack of regulation leaves laboratory safety in the hands of the biohackers. As with any scientific endeavor involving genetic engineering, accidents can occur that could lead to the release of environmentally destructive organisms. Biohackers injecting themselves or others could cause any number of infections or adverse reactions. Additionally, the risk of the development of dangerous or ineffective gene therapies and other products by biohackers has led the Food and Drug Administration to issue warnings to the public about untested products. This risk is especially relevant in an era of rising drug costs.

Other dangers, such as specific threats to biosecurity, are real but attenuated. While it is possible biohackers could genetically engineer a bacteria or virus, there are far easier ways for a small-scale terrorist group to attack.

Future of Biohacking
Highly technical equipment and processes are becoming more accessible. People are looking for ways to take control of their health and provide access to medicines. Curiosity about the natural world should be encouraged.

The risks are real, but we can deal with them by working together. By having community leaders willing to confront the risks and help develop community norms, we can shape the application of biohacker energies. Zayner himself has realized that other biohackers may seek to emulate his self-experimentation and get hurt.

In the end, biohacking is here to stay.

Jennifer Carter-Johnson photo

Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, is an Associate Professor of Law in the College of Law at Michigan State University. Dr. Carter-Johnson is a member of the Michigan State Bar. She is registered to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Carter-Johnson: Web of Interests Surrounding Medicines Makes Patient Access Increasingly DifficultHumanity in the Age of Genetic ModificationDefining The Spectrum of “Normal”: What is a Disease?Dawn of False Hope: Spread of “Right To Try” Laws across the U.S.

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